The JFK Assassination: Size Matters

21 November, 2013
Pic 1: The Book Depository looms over the Parkway

Pic 1: The Book Depository looms over Elm St.

Earlier this year I spent a morning at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. It was an early spring day with just enough crispness in the air to make the sunlight pop. As I strolled around, I was struck by the familiarity of my surrounds. Images, from the Zapruder film to the myriad iconic pictures of the day, have seared the scenes of November 22, 1963 into my brain.

Standing next to Elm St, the road taken by the presidential limo, everything around me was familiar yet also surprising. Everywhere I looked, I just kept thinking It’s small!

Pic 2: New grass for the Grassy Knoll, just across the Parkway

Pic 2: New grass for the Grassy Knoll; X marks the spot of a shot.

From the south side of the street I looked over to the grassy knoll and it was simply right there! Not off in the distance, where a second, third or fourth gunman or a Cuban or a Mafia hit man, a deranged Republican or equally improbable character could have plugged away with impunity, but rather just a few yards beyond the three-lane road. To talk to the tourists gazing out from tree-shaded knoll, I wouldn’t have had to shout, just project my voice a little.

In fact, Dealey Plaza and Elm St, the stage where the killing of Kennedy played out, is like a lot of stages: small. From the top of Elm St to the places where John F Kennedy was shot isn’t much larger than an midrange suburban lawn. It’s like when I toured The Tonight Show studio at NBC in Burbank when I was a kid and discovered that what seemed sprawling on TV wasn’t any larger than a two-car garage.

Pic 3: The view from the Grassy Knoll

Pic 3: The view from the Grassy Knoll.

Typical camera lenses have wide angles and looking at my own photos, I see how my images make the views broad, the distances long. But when I stood behind the fence on the grassy knoll, looking at where the bullets hit JFK (conveniently marked with X’s painted on the pavement), I was almost on top of Elm St, which was lined with bystanders that day. Where Abraham Zapruder filmed with his 8mm camera was just a few feet away. Yet, in the minutes after the gunfire, dozens of people pointed at the open window of the Texas School Book Depository while almost no one pointed at the much closer grassy knoll.

The view from above, courtesy of Apple Maps

Dealey Plaza from above.   ©Apple Maps

Later, I visited the highly worthwhile Sixth Floor Museum in the eerily familiar red brick former book depository. (Walking in, I couldn’t help but shiver as I entered that place.) Crouching down just behind where Lee Harvey Oswald aimed out the window I was again struck by the lack of distance. Elm St is right below Oswald’s perch and the two painted X’s are close. Rather than a marksman, it seems that even the most casual of weekend warriors hoping to rid America’s woods of dangerous deer could make the shots. His field of fire was, yes, small. [The museum forbids photos from the window, which means you can purchase images of the view from the gift shop.]

I am convinced that had others been shooting at JFK 50 years ago, people would have both heard and seen them. Even the click of a lighter behind the grassy knoll is audible across Elm St. As an American, I may be predisposed to believe in conspiracy theories (you get one guess as to where most of the world’s UFO reports originate) and my years as a reporter taught me that nothing is too bizarre or improbable to be true, but in this case I’m not buying it. Wishing for some cinematic sweep of intrigue doesn’t make JFK conspiracy theories any more true than the tantalizing prospect that scores of MIAs have been kept hidden in the jungles of Vietnam for decades.

And if you only read two pieces of 50th anniversary coverage, try these two:

  • In a concise and cogent essay, Slate’s Fred Kaplan debunks a wide-range of conspiracy theories.
  • November 22, 1963 was that era’s “Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed/the World Trade Center was destroyed?” moment. Edward Cohen of The Atlantic has clips of the initially breathless TV bulletins and weaves them together with context and thoughtful commentary.

Finally, although I had only just turned three, I have vivid memories of the news that Kennedy was killed. My mother and sister sat weeping in front of our big old black and white TV, which stayed on – with me in front of it – for the next several days.

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Hunting Beatles in Hamburg

10 April, 2012

Star Club Memorial, Große Freiheit 39

It’s the 50th anniversary of the Beatles seminal gig at the fabled Starr Club in Hamburg, which was the seminal point during a two-year run Germany’s second-largest city that transformed them from a bunch of lads from England into superstars. Looking for traces of their Hamburg legacy, I found a few addresses with links to the boys. Mostly, though, I found sun-faded dildos.

The Star Club is most closely associated with the Beatles in Hamburg but it’s long gone. There’s only this sad plaque [above] on the shabby apartment complex that replaced the 2000-seat venue after it burnt down in 1987. However the Beatles didn’t play the Star until it opened on 13 April 1962 by which time they were well on their way to fame and fortune. Their Hamburg gigs began in August 1960, when John, Paul and George plus bass player Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best arrived from England in a busted up old van and began their transformation into sensations.

Indra Club, 64 Grosse Freiheit

The first gigs were in the small Indra Club, which actually survives and once again has live music some nights. They were paid next-to-nothing and played at least four sets a day for what must have seemed eight days a week. Their quarters were an unheated room at a nearby movie theatre (now an apartment house) where they were awakened each day by the sounds of budget-matinee-attending housewives pissing in the adjoining toilets.

Kaiserkeller, Grosse Freiheit 36

In October 1960, the Indra was closed due to noise complaints (I lived in Germany, Germans hate noise.) The boys moved just up the block to the Kaiserkeller, a basement venue of a larger theatre. This place also survives, although in much-altered form.

Gretel & Alfons, Grosse Freiheit 29

As you wander about the Grosse Freiheit, the short and straight road that was the center of the Beatles time in Hamburg, you realize just how small their world was: their venues and scuzzy rooms were all within a few hundred meters of each other. Their favourite cafe and bar durimg their few off-hours, the barely changed Gretel & Alfons, was almost next to the Star Club.

Former Top 10 Club, Reeperbahn 136

In late October 1960, the Beatles broke with their promoter at the Kaiserkeller and went for slightly more money and marginally better living quarters at the Top Ten Club just around the corner. Things quickly fell apart as the old promoter reported George Harrison to immigration authorities (he was 17) and McCartney and Best retaliated by setting fire to a condom in their old daggy living quarters. This added “attempted arson” to their legal woes and the boys went back to Liverpool. The Top 10 Club building survives but has had many incarnations over the years, most recently a now-closed gay disco.

How much for that ducky - or dildo - in the window?

Unlike the early 1960s, the infamous Reeperbahn, the main drag of Hamburg’s renowned St Pauli district, is no longer an edgy strip of cutting edge clubs and bars. Today neon-bedecked strip joints and live sex clubs are as common as bars with shot specials aimed at tourists and weekend warriors from nearby farm towns. Even the goods in the plethora of sex shops look deflated. You won’t find the Beatles of today playing anywhere here. On weekends, prostitutes with so much makeup that they look like grotesquely animated blow-up dolls prowl the streets, chatting with the mobs of cops.

Where the Grosse Freiheit meets the Reeperbahn, the city has created “Beatlesplatz,” a desolate open-space with the outlines of the Beatles formed from stainless steel. You can decide if the drummer is Best or Ringo Starr (who had replaced Best for a Starr Club appearance in November 1962). By 1963, the Beatles were gone from Hamburg. John Lennon later said: “I might have been born in Liverpool – but I grew up in Hamburg.”


Why I Hate Brussels-Midi

31 March, 2012

Bad food, bad shops and plenty of filth,
Brussels-Midi – a vital transfer hub – is vying to be the worst major train station in the EU. My experiences today follow (and were not helped by Eurostar shambles…).

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Want some classic Belgian frites, slathered in mayo and really the best in the world? No! Want some horrible undercooked pizza from awful NYC chain Sbarro? Yes!

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Want some delicious Belgian pastries or other local specialty? No! Want a grotty sandwich from US chain Subway, whose outlets have the same vomit-like smell worldwide? Yes!

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Want a nice little box of classic Brussels bon-bons (arguably world’s best) to slip into your petit baggage? No! Want an overly large and over-priced family-size box or truffles? Yes! (The station shops had a, er, sweet little box of tasty Neuhaus pralines but they were polywrapped in threes.

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Having found nothing to eat or buy at Brussels-Midi, I went to check in for my Eurostar train to London. Recalling my first trip to Russia, it only took 70 minutes. I enjoyed four queues: 1) only one gate open for ticket check, 2) Belgian cop who demanded and then ignored my proffered passport, 3) UK border cop check, who said they were running an Olympics test and scrutinized every passport as if it held the clue to next week’s Lotto numbers, 4) airline-style security to make certain I don’t high jack the train in Calais and demand we take the tracks to Cuba.

Okay, so I finally escaped the appropriately acronymed BM and write this on my iPhone using the WordPress app while zipping west on Eurostar. We’re only 30 minutes late… Bon voyage!


Jeffrey Zaslow’s 1986 Article I’ve Never Forgotten

12 February, 2012

[Jeffrey Zaslow died in a car crash in Michigan on Friday, 10 Feb at age 53.]

I moved to Chicago in 1983 and lived on what was then the frontlines of gentrification in Lincoln Park. I used to see this homeless guy on the same block of Clark St regularly; as I’d cruise past on the bus I’d see irritated yuppies angling past him, their expressions making it plain that he and his bags of stuff and his inescapable smell were not welcome.

One day he disappeared and I wondered what had happened to him. Not enough mind you to actually do anything substantive or helpful, but I wondered none-the-less. Then I saw this feature in the Wall Street Journal on December 1, 1986 written by Jeffrey Zaslow 9see link below). It explained that the homeless guy was named Jim and that he’d been set on fire mysteriously one night. At the time I was greatly moved by the article and called Zaslow to tell him how much I appreciated it. He was rather flustered with the praise and we didn’t talk long.

But I’ve always remembered that story and the way Zaslow reported and wrote it – just last month I was telling somebody about it. The end is haunting and has stuck with me since; often I ask myself if I would actually help someone in need or simply not see them at all.


Finding a Cheap Last-Minute Room

31 December, 2011

I needed a cheap room in Chicago. At the very last moment I discovered I only needed 2102 miles to reach the 150K milestone with United Airlines, which brings a trove of free upgrades and other goodies. My faulty tracking had shown I’d be more than 10K miles short of this level so I obviously missed some bonuses or something. Anyway, on 28 December I planned a quick mileage run round-trip Portland to Chicago which would net me 3484 miles, more than enough for the 150K bonanza.

Credits from United which got me a good fare and I was upgraded to first class on my cheapo last-minute ticket. Although as you can see below, the food is hardly first class, more like Satanic Arby’s (faux turkey product, yuck) – it’s really just the extra large seat that matters.

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Flights arranged, I needed a last-minute cheapo room in Chicago. I compared newcomer Hotel Tonight against old standby Hotwire. Booking the day of my trip (at Portland’s airport), time and monetary savings were essential.

First up, Hotel Tonight. Their hype is that hotels dump unsold rooms at the very last minute, letting you enjoy huge savings. In fact you don’t have access to any rooms that night until noon local time. I was intrigued and installed the app on my iPhone. (Although Hotel Tonight has a website, you have to use the iPhone or Android apps to book.)

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Registration was easy, more importantly, the web is awash in Hotel Tonight promo codes, so I had a $25 credit before I’d done a thing.

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Hotel Tonight sussed out my location – Portland – during the login (and their promo copy suggests that they’re your best friend for a boozy one-night stand). But I needed Chicago; at 12:05 pm Chicago time they had a mere three choices for me that night (despite my prefs stating NOT O’Hare I was given a shot at an airport hotel). On a night with no conventions in town, getting only three choices was pitiful, even if the prices (eg $119 for the Hard Rock) were not bad.

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I switched to old friend Hotwire, which I have been using for cheap last-minute hotel stays for years. The caveat with Hotwire is that you don’t know the name of the hotel you are buying until after you’ve bought it. Vague neighborhood details and even cloudier hotel details mean that there’s a lot of random factors involved. Still if you can live within these constraints, you can save huge. (Read all my tips on booking a hotel room here.)

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Hotwire uses a mobile web interface instead of an app, but functionality is fine: put in your basic details and see what you get. Chicago-area hotels had plenty of rooms given I got back dozens and dozens of results.

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I gave up hitting “Show 12 more results…” after five clicks.

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Obviously I needed to narrow down the results given the limited charms of suburbs like Oak Lawn and Lisle. One huge annoyance of Hotwire’s mobile web interface is that there’s no “uncheck all” button which means individually saying adieu to Itasca, Burr Ridge and other distant hotspots. Oh “O’Hare Intl Airport ORD South,” the memories we’ll never have.

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My choices narrowed to a broad swath of the city from the Loop north, Hotwire still had scads of choices. Of course one of the compromises is not knowing the exact location where you’ll stay, as you can see from the vast blob that comprises “North Michigan Avenue – Water Tower – Gold Coast.” (Note that in some Hotwire cities, the geographic designations are so vast that about all you can count is being in the same region.)

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Even narrowing down my choices, I still get a huge range of places to choose from. A three-star place for $56, another for $72 plus a two-star for $78. Despite any real definition, more stars are usually better, even if you don’t really know what they mean. I’m trying to go cheap, so there’s no reason to go past the first three screens. I’m actually not too excited by staying in the Loop (dullsville at night and I’ll just have that much further to travel to see friends) or in a “Magnificent Mile Area – Streeterville area hotel” as you can either end up almost in the Loop or out in the desert of high-rise condos and apartments by the lake. And based on past experience, the two-star place in Lake View – Lincoln Park – Wrigleyville is usually the City Suites Hotel on Belmont where the cheap Hotwire rooms butt up against the all-night cacophony of the El.

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Given all the variables, I’m thinking the four-star hotel for $71 is calling out to me; I’ll bite.

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Just like the airlines, added fees and taxes turn that $71 into almost $88, not bad and it’s only taken five minutes. After a couple of screens confirming payment details, I await my mystery hotel to be revealed…

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And the results! The Whitehall, a long-running modest but nice hotel off Rush St on the Gold Coast. (A side historic note, when Rupert Murdoch bought – and nearly destroyed – the Chicago Sun-Times in 1984, he forever branded his new hack publisher as a toady by ordering him in front of the staff to “take my bags to the Whitehall.”)

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Less than two hours after landing at O’Hare, I was in room 1010, watching Notre Dame once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in their bowl game against Florida St. With my bargain rate I couldn’t hope for a view beyond my non-view, which would be ideal for reticent exhibitionists. But no complaints, the price was good for my 20 hours in town and I had a delightful night out on the Gold Coast.


Bangkok: Water Water Not Quite Everywhere

30 November, 2011

Thailand is awash in record flooding. Like a wine stain on a tablecloth, the high waters are slowly oozing across the flatlands of the south and eventually will flow into the sea. But in the meantime there’s been much hype around the threat to Bangkok. Reports of floodwaters around the capital has caused tourism to crash as people cancel trips or go directly to unaffected regions such as Phuket.

In reality, central Bangkok has managed to avoid the worst of the water, leaving people in outlying areas to deal with being inundated for weeks on end. Emergency levees have been built surrounding the city’s core which have spared the parts most visitors see albeit at a high cost to the those on the flood side of the barriers.

I visited Bangkok in late November and found the main parts of the city dry and functioning but weirdly empty of tourists. Here’s what I found.

Flying in we passed over the regions northwest of the city. [above] The land – farms, industrial areas, housing estates were covered with water as far as you could see. Bangkok’s second airport, Don Muang, [below] was completely inundated. This has caused some domestic flights to be cancelled.

The main airport, Suvarnabhumi (BKK), was wide open and – possibly thanks to the dip in visitor numbers – I was through immigration and customs in record time and was soon literally speeding my way into Bangkok on the new non-stop airport express train. [above] Built on elevated tracks, the trains (www.bangkokairporttrain.com) are free from flood worries. Originally the express trains ran to a city air terminal that didn’t link well with anything else. Now, however, some bureaucrat somewhere got smart and you can hop a train non-stop to Phaya Thai station where it’s an easy (yes, easy!) connection to the essential Sky Train network (also not flood-effected). For anyone who remembers the endless hassles with Bangkok’s predatory/rapacious airport cabbies, being able to whizz into town [below] in 17 minutes for 30 baht (US$3) is miraculous.

I stayed in Sukumvit, the commercial heart of Bangkok. Shopkeepers have hurriedly built flood walls in front of their shops (with sandbag steps) should the waters rise, although flooding has yet to happen here. [above] The name Sukumvit has always been leeringly appropriate given that every other white guy you see is with a young Thai woman. But flood fears have numbers down and the ubiquitous sidewalk vendors of sun-damaged dildos and laughably fake boxes of “Viagra” [below] are scratching for business.

Shopping malls and hotels were virtual ghost towns; the Royal Orchid Sheraton on the Chao Phraya River which normally would be buzzing with tour groups and travellers was deserted. Still, Bangkok’s hellacious traffic [above] remains just that.

One of my favourite Bangkok activities is travelling by public boat along the river. [above] Usually a bulging mix of locals, monks and tourists, the boats are still running despite the high water but with many fewer passengers. I was able to snag a seat on the half-empty boat. [below]

The river keeps topping the banks, so wooden walkways – ala Venice – provide access to the ferry stops [above] which in turn are protected by sandbags. [below]

The floods disrupted train services around Thailand but everything is running again from Bangkok. [above] The budget traveller special, the 15-hour slow train to Chiang Mai ($9) [below] is running again and offering non-AC adventure for locals and backpackers. [bottom]

 


Chased by an Elephant, Seduced by a Leopard

3 November, 2011

And then the elephant charged. I was only 15 minutes into a morning safari in South Africa when we found this lone bull grazing for breakfast. A comparatively cold winter morning, this fellow ignored us while he wandered under the dull grey skies looking for something green amidst the leafless trees and brown seasonal growth. Or maybe he just wanted some coffee – I know I did as it was about 6:45am – because his mood turned ornery as he decided he’d heard enough camera snaps and suddenly ran at us, his seemingly ponderous bulk moving astonishingly quick. Fortunately our collective silent scream “Toyota don’t fail me now!” worked and we zoomed away.

Safari vehicles – besides having useful acceleration – are open-topped with stadium style seating for six or more. Ours was driven by Chris, who has lived his entire life amongst the animals of eastern South Africa in and near Kruger National Park. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his acceleration skills unflinching. The spotter from his perch sees rhinos where others see dead grass and barren shrubs. Here a waterbuck darts across our path.

Waterholes are great places to spot game, who emerge from the bush for a drink with the sort of furtive caution you’d use passing dark alleys in a tough neighborhood; you never know who you’ll run into. This one seemed empty, but their was an almost oppressive sense that eyes were watching and waiting from the bush.

We ran into a whole family of elephants, who, unlike their ill-humored bachelor peer, actually seemed to welcome our interruption to their ceaseless eating of dry grass. This little guy, about two months old, came right over for a look. Okay, anthropomorphism blabber aside, he was awfully cute and I wanted to hop out of the Toyota and give him a pat on his dear little hairy head and have a full-on Dumbo-moment. Then again, his nearby family of watchful females – some larger than the guy who chased us – helped dissuade me from having a Darwin Award moment.

A tedious cliché of safaris is the endless hype around the “Big Five.” Tourists, businesses and ads spout this phrase that refers to elephants, black rhinos, lions, leopards and cape buffalos. But what about perennial faves like giraffes, zebras and hippos? Turns out that “big five” was coined by white hunters who claimed that the animals were the ones most dangerous to a man with a gun hunting on foot. Besides serving as verbal viagra, the phrase obfuscated more mundane details about our hero’s bravery like the dozens of locals serving as bearers, cooks, spotters and more; tents filled with crates of whiskey, cigars and tins of paté; and a mansion at home with a waiting wall where the stuffed head of an African animal which hadn’t yet developed an evolutionary solution to high-velocity chunks of lead (beyond goring, stomping and/or eating the hunter) could be mounted. Still, there’s no denying the sheer menacing presence of the cape buffalo above.

Baleful as the cape buffalo may normally look, we spotted this blissed out fellow enjoying the ministrations of the appropriately named red-billed oxpecker. Although the bird’s taste for ticks might seem like an obvious benefit for the larger animal, in reality the feathered friend is about as beneficial as a heroin dealer. Sure the oxpecker removes irksome ticks but in the process it leaves a little wound which attracts more ticks; the more relief the buffalo gets, the more it wants.

Food. What nature show doesn’t climax with the hapless grazing critter brought down by a hungry cat, jackal or hyena? Here a herd of impalas bounded by, one glancing over to see if he needed to kick it up a notch.

Obviously this impala could have used another shot of spunk. What little of it was left was being carted along by a young male leopard in his prime. Although this might be the money shot for many, we were about to witness the real thrill.

Like impalas attuned to the slightest mood change of the herd leader, a sudden electricity in our guide Chris grabbed us. “Two!” came a sort of hushed shout and indeed there was a pair of leopards trotting past us. Thrilling yes, but Chris’s excitement made it clear this was something more. “I’ve never seen two together utterly ignoring each other like these guys.” We soon learned that leopards are fiercely solitary and when they encounter each other the results get messy, although unlike, say, the US Congress, they rarely fight to the death knowing there’s no future in mutual destruction.

Chris was still marveling at seeing two male leopards when we found this single – and obviously male –leopard having a rest. One of the pair we’d seen before, a tiny wound between his eyes showed that their encounter hadn’t been a kumbaya songfest (which incidentally is an old African spiritual song of unity).

After such a critter- and thrill-filled morning, it was time for a break and we stopped by a waterhole to stretch our legs. If the murky water – and temp – didn’t dissuade us from a dip, the menacing stare of the submerged hippopotamuses did. That these often parodied beasts are the most dangerous to humans in Africa is not a myth. Far from being happy herbivores, they are ill-tempered tubbos known for upsetting boats, squashing people and chomping the hapless in their huge canines. See below.

As you can see, ending up in a ill-humored hippo’s mouth is unlikely to end well, even if they don’t actually eat you. For much more on hippos and their peril (plus their equally fearsome poop and piss habits), see this column from the Straight Dope.

Over three days I went on six safaris in the Sabi Sand Reserve and eventually saw the full panoply of African icons, including giraffes, rhinos, zebras, warthogs (or: “really ugly mothers”) and a whole pride of lions who allowed us into their midst for an amazing amount of time. I’m always adverse to lists of things to do before you die, or take out the trash, but I would recommend you find a way to get out in the bush if you have any interest in nature. It was never especially warm or pretty on my winter drives during September, but that allowed the focus to fall entirely on the animals. It combined the thrill of a treasure hunt – sometimes we drove for an hour or more, just getting a glimpse of some “food” and the odd bird – with that pure sense of immersion we strive for on the road, with the odd burst of adrenaline.


9/11 Resonated for me on 9/14

13 September, 2011

I was in Melbourne, Australia when the planes hit the World Trade Center. I was working in-house at Lonely Planet as a publisher then and was on one of my frequent visits to the home office. I was due to fly back to my home in San Francisco and my desk in the LP Oakland office on Sept 12. I slept through the attacks, which happened in the middle of the night Melbourne time.

The first I knew of the events was when I stopped into the Greek news agent’s store for my  morning paper. Instead of the usual smile, he gave me a stricken look and handed me the paper, which had an enormous picture of the United plane striking the South Tower. The tram ride into work and much of the rest of the day are a blur. I was streaming US network TV on my laptop while friends and colleagues wandered in and out of my office. People were sympathetic, we talked about what the attacks meant and I shared hugs and tears with the few other Americans in the office.

I also found myself stranded at the wrong end of the world. Something inside me said “go home” but that was not an option. Nothing was flying to the US and it was too soon to look for a freighter. I moved hotels – to one with CNN – and literally lost myself in work. We had dozens of authors researching books worldwide and I wanted to find out where each one was, confirm they were safe and find out if they needed anything. No one knew if 9/11 was the start of something larger and yet more horrible. I could only imagine being on the road and alone, far from home.

 The Return Home

Flights to the US were set to resume on 14 Sept and I got a seat on the first United flight out. The prospect of flying didn’t bother me and I was constantly cognizant of being in the wrong hemisphere, a world away from life-changing events. At the airport, nothing seemed different at first; Australia was still digesting the events in the US and while the attacks were talked about, they hadn’t overwhelmed all other discourse and Australian airplanes had never stopped flying.

But once aboard the United 747 on 14 Sept I began to enter the new reality of life in the US. For the first time since 9/11 I was surrounded by Americans. Faces were taut and there was a palpable tension. Everyone seemed to have a copy of a special issue of Time or Newsweek and the images on the pages conveyed a stark horror we’d been insulated from. I was in my usual seat on the upper deck, right at the emergency exit on the right side. As I sat sorting my thoughts, the purser appeared and knelt down in front of me. He beckoned me closer and as I leaned forward he said in a whisper: “Would you be willing to help the crew?” I knew immediately from the quaver in his voice that this wasn’t going to be the usual special instruction about opening the door in an emergency.

“In case there’s trouble on the flight,” he continued, “we’ll need all the help we can get.” Feeling my eyes starting to bug slightly, I murmured a quizzical and tentative “okay…”

Taking my arm, the purser pulled me from my seat and over to the flight attendant station directly across. “Here,” he said pointing at a big cylinder mounted on the right side, “this is the fire extinguisher. If something bad happens, please take it and hit whoever is causing trouble.”

I stared at the celery-green cylinder mounted on the side and managed another “okay…”

“Here’s how you remove it,” the purser continued as he showed how the latch worked. “You try.”

"My" fire extinguisher is tucked away on the side.

I unsnapped the strap and hoisted the extinguisher, which was surprisingly heavy, maybe about 15 pounds. It felt like cast iron and had a slightly pebbled texture to the cold metal case, sort of like the skin of an orange. “Just swing it, hit them over the head,” the purser said encouragingly. “Okay…” I managed as he replaced the device and I sat back in my seat.

The first accounts of the heroics of the passengers and crew on United flight 93 had been published that day. I’d read them, but now they took on a sudden relevance that left me deeply unsettled. I was blithely going to fly home, I was an outsider to everything that happened in the US. Now I was lost wondering what I’d do if trouble erupted. It was easy to assume some Rambo-like role of heroics but who was I kidding? If the unthinkable happened, would I fly into action with my fire extinguisher or would I freeze? Could I drop my role as the bemused observer and actually do something?

Hearing “we appreciate your volunteering” I looked up to see one of the pilots, a guy right out of pilot central casting, giving me warm smile. “I’m sure there won’t be a problem but its good to be ready just in case,” he said, “we don’t want anyone reaching the cockpit.”

“Okay…”

Once in the air, I found it hard to focus on anything but my thoughts about 9/11 and that celery-green fire extinguisher a few feet away. The Producers was showing and normally a gin and tonic enjoyed while Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel realize their improbable path to wealth through theatrical failure would have been the ideal escape. But I couldn’t focus on it. I drank a soda water. The flight attendants were my new best friends. They came by constantly asking me if I wanted anything, they gave me conspiratorial winks. But they also showed plenty of strain.  Several hours into the 13-hour flight I chatted with a few for a while. They knew crew on the flights that crashed, they worried that this was just the start of much greater horrors and they worried – with good reason as it turned out – what would happen to air travel.

Ten years later I have no recollection of who sat next to me, or if anyone did. I didn’t sleep but passed the hours glancing at the flight attendant station, trying to sense sudden movements from the back of the cabin, wondering if I could be of any use and starting to think about 9/11 on a level deeper than just an almost unfathomable spectacle of horror. We landed in San Francisco and I was soon focused on catching up with a society that was profoundly changed from the one I’d left a few weeks before.

 Ten Years Later

Just last week, I was flying back to the US from Sydney on a United 747. As I have during my many flights on these planes over the last 10 years, I looked at the now-familiar and still oddly celery-green fire extinguisher at the flight attendants station. If anything, it now brings back thoughts of “what if” and self-absorbed ponderings of self-doubt. It also reminds me of how we are all cast into roles. Being white, large and then nearly middle-aged, I must have fit the ideal of someone the crew could assume wasn’t a terrorist and would be useful back-up if trouble happened. Nothing about my appearance I guess suggested that I’ve never hit anyone in my life or that I was always picked dead last at baseball, thanks to my inability to swing a bat in any useful way.

But mostly I just fly. I hang onto my droopy-drawer beltless pants as I shuffle shoeless through security I find a much-larger than allowed bottle of liquid forgotten in an obscure pocket of my bag that has gone undiscovered through at least 40 security screenings, and I read accounts like this (Woman flyer strip searched and locked up) which show us just how much we’ve lost and how we’ve collectively allowed these changes which diminish us all. Where’s my fire extinguisher now and why aren’t I using it?


Old and new rice in Ubud

29 August, 2011

Rice fields on 10 July

One of the frog chorus

My two months in Ubud on Bali are up. It’s been a lovely stay complete with sojourns to the Banda Islands, Sulawesi and Oregon (!). My little flat is set back on the edge of rice fields and the often cacophonous peak-tourist-season roar of motorbikes and tour busses is but an occasional distant rumble. Instead I’ve enjoyed the nightly symphony of frogs, who range from soprano to alto and are myriad in diversity. Just when you have the rhythm and notes down, a new member joins the chorus with a completely different yet somehow entirely complementary song. Towards morning roosters add accents and by the time dawn breaks behind the palm trees, the frogs have been replaced by birds, hundreds of singing, chirping, warbling birds. From my bedroom, I’ve watched the rice fields, which are different every day. When I arrived in early July, the remains of the old crop were brown in the fields after harvest. Now a new crop in all its iridescent greenness is nearing its peak. This metaphor of old and new is too obvious for the work I’ve been doing updating Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, but I have found much new to recommend for another season of travelers. And I am already anticipating my next Ubud visit, probably early next year.

The rice fields on 29 Aug


Banda Quest: My Amazing Journey

27 August, 2011

Follow me to Indonesia’s fabled Banda Islands, one of the best places I’ve visited. Start here