My first shark dive, over a decade ago, our group encountered half a dozen reef sharks in the Red Sea. The big monsters circled the coral an hour offshore. The sight stole my breath, my aqualung pumping furiously—not the best reaction at minus 30 ft.
The white tip is a predator, though not likely to charge across open water for a taste of human. Still, they were massive. We sent bubbles to the surface in thick veils. We watched and photographed for long minutes.
This was a side adventure during a dangerous time in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. We’d escaped the very real threat of terrorism on shore in pursuit of terrifying thrills at sea. There was purity in the experience. The vast blue surrounded us. Our dive team numbered the same as the sharks. We had the cameras; they had the advantage.
Months later, we would be hit hard by the terrorists (more). The sharks never bothered.
This comes to mind all these years later after taking up the snorkel once again, this time with my youngest son. Our charter from Big Pine Key brought us 30 minutes out, to Looe Key reef. The wind was big and the waves bigger. They rocked the boat as we climbed down the ladder and pushed away, the six-year-old in my lap. Continue reading Swimming with Sharks
The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) included this discussion of Two Pumps for the Body Man in their new Digital Exclusives series. Unlike the great programming by Zach Galifianakis, the AFSA studio had no ferns and only one bamboo.
Foreign Service Officer Ben East brings to the table a satirical look at diplomatic service in the Middle East in his neo-noir, Two Pumps for the Body Man. The novel follows Jeff Mutton, a diplomatic security agent who must deal with an outlandish boss, hidden government agendas, deadly threats, and a unique personal affliction. East also takes time to explain how parts of the book were heavily informed by his own harrowing experience in Saudi Arabia as his consulate was attacked.
Remembering those we lost. Remembering those who survived. Remembering this awful day and its protracted aftermath.
It’s the aftermath that sticks most. The long period that stretched through weeks when our broken mission pulled itself together again. We pulled ourselves up from piles of ash and dust; from the pulverized concrete and glass shattered by bullets fired into the chancery; from the smoldering heap of a Marine house burned to the ground.
I remember the rifles mounted on alien tripods behind sandbags and concertina wire that popped up around the compound with the arrival of a Marine detachment. I remember the flickering lights along darkened corridors that cast jittery shadows for weeks as we made our way through routine in an effort to restore ourselves to normal.
I came upon this essay about the day itself in the third edition of Inside a U.S. Embassy (2011). I don’t need to read to remember, or to know that every day our diplomats put their lives on the line. Some wear a bigger target on their backs than others; some for longer periods. But we all serve in harm’s way, at some point.
Two more pieces worth reading. Two Pumps for the Body Man is a satire about diplomatic life on the front line of the war on terror.
Three novelists offer their views of Two Pumps for the Body Man, a satire about life on the front line of the War on Terror.
…the pace is fast… Two Pumps is a page-turner, baby, and it takes some real balls to satirize the great Christian crusade of our times. …a wry ode to the cluster-f*** of confusion that is the WOT. -Prokash
…a wonderfully wacky consular bash in a place called The Kingdom, a nightmarish place straight out of Catch-22 where bureaucrats use every acronym under the sun (including OOPS)… haywire bureaucracy at its finest. -Cormack
…takes you from one absurd situation to another. Nothing is sacred and all the sub-stories are titillating. Just wait until you get to the conclusion! -Altson
Find out more about the work of Ted Prokash (The Brothers Connolly is comforting, a sort of homecoming, a rich, poetic tale of middle America).
Robert Bruce Cormack (his novel’s a picaro’s tale with dialogue miscues straight out of Catch-22 and an unsung genius—Muller—who might have wandered in from A Confederacy of Dunces).
John Altson (He gives one hope that a thousand years from now, we might advise our alien neighbors on climate change and reprimand their decadent methane-dependence–including cars that run on the “natural gas” of its passengers via a tube plugged into the rectum).
Set in Saudi Arabia, Two Pumps did for American diplomacy and the War on Terror what Catch-22 did for military logic in World War II: The enemy can’t kill us if our institutions kill us first.
Jeff Mutton walks the diplomatic beat protecting American officials in Saudi Arabia. An expert with guns and knives, grenades and rockets, he’s survived assaults and sieges, stabbings and chokeholds, car bombs, carjackings, criminal hits, and countless other enemy threats. But instinct tells Mutton the menace he now faces dwarfs all these killers combined. The fool!—his foot fetish has him in hot water again.
Part soft-boiled noir, part literary satire, Two Pumps for the Body Man is an unserious look at a serious situation, a grim reminder that no matter how high the barricade, how sharp the razor wire, there is no front line to the War on Terror. And the enemy is everywhere, even within.
My copy of Old Sparky—The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty arrived the day after a federal jury ended 14 hours of deliberation during which they concluded that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserved death for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon attack.
This was no accident. I requested the copy as a means of examining my feelings about the sentence, and my views on capital punishment more generally. Wrong or right? If right, then how to proceed? Is there any way to ensure that intentionally bringing about the death of another human being—wrong or right; “deserved” or not—isn’t, at core, cruel and unusual?
Anthony Galvin writes with dignified detachment. He brings his reader into the modern death chamber—many death chambers—and provides a visceral experience free of judgment for or against state-sanctioned death. He lets the sentence speak for itself: the aged oak throne; the metal helmet screwed snug against skull; the wet sponge against shaved scalp; the tightened leather strap thick about the neck; the hood; the final, darkened silence.
At the touch of a button the executioner, an “electrician”, sends 1,800 volts through the convict for 30 seconds, his body convulsing against restraint, smoke wafting from the top of his head. For a minute more 250 volts course through the body. Possibly—possibly—this stops the heart. So the cycle is repeated, perhaps as many as five times, before the curtain closes on observers come to witness the final breath.
Hate-speech promoter Pam Geller reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s dentist, Tim Whately and his quest for total joke-telling immunity. When Jerry tells Father Curtis he thinks Whately converted to Judaism for the jokes, the priest asks, “And this offends you as a Jewish person?”
“No,” says Jerry. “It offends me as a comedian.”
Geller’s irrational defense of her bigoted “draw-a-cartoon-of-Mohamed” conference in Garland, TX offends me less as an American (though she makes our nation seem entirely racist, hateful, intolerant, and childish); her crusade offends me most as a writer.
Now, I’m no ISIS sympathizer or apologist for bullies. I’m no anti-Dentite. But is sticking your finger in somebody’s eye an act of courage? Is it the defense of free expression? Or is it just a petty means of inciting a violence far out of proportion to the original act? The results in Garland, and January’s dark hour in Paris, give us the answer.
What the shallow, small-minded Geller doesn’t seem to understand is that her promotion of hate speech, wrapped in the Red-White-&-Blue ideal of protected expression, jeopardizes the very right she pretends to defend.
This review appears in the latest issue of Crime Factory magazine–the excellent Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! by Douglas Lindsay. Enjoy, coffee drinkers and Beatles lovers!
Before Douglas Lindsay’s Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! descends into nightmare, the narrative hints at a story about the ho-hum life: the humorous musings of a middle-aged man resigned to a tired marriage, an uninspired job, and a sense that the only bright spot on his horizon is his intelligent daughter, Baggins. But the ennui is transformed by a surprise phone call from James Kite’s literary agent. A Hollywood mogul wants to produce his screenplay, The Jigsaw Man, which had languished for years on slush piles around the world.
That should resonate with anyone who’s sent their manuscripts off to editors, only to have the pages disappear without a trace. For Kite, however, the revival of his script—“exactly the type of straight-to-TV, martial arts bunfight that would be turned into a Steven Segal movie and shown in the late hours on Channel 5”, as he describes it—is received with disbelief and doubt rather than hope or joy. It can’t be real. As his wife Brin says: “It’s from Hollywood. Of course it’s fake.”
And so much of what follows can’t be real, either. Kite vanishes from a plane bound for Hollywood. The narrative next has him trapped in a dull grey cell inside a secretive American institution. He has no recollection or understanding of how he got there, let alone where there is. All he knows is that two humorless American agents, Crosskill and No-Name, want to know how he got off the plane, and the whereabouts of the Jigsaw Man. Queue Kite’s confusion—do they want the man or the script inspired by the man?—in the face of these humorless, stone-faced manifestations of bureaucracy.
I picked up Greg Matos’ Shattered Glass—The Story of a Marine Embassy Guard with a narrow purpose. I wanted to read about the December 2004 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I wanted to know what it felt like to be the Marine standing Post when five heavily armed terrorists stormed our compound, killing and wounding colleagues in the course of an hours-long siege. I wanted to know how it felt to be responsible for protecting scores of U.S. and foreign diplomatic personnel serving the United States at a time when anti-American sentiment had reached new heights, thanks to the invasion of Iraq and protracted insurgency that followed.
What I found, in the end, was a heartfelt, deeply personal narrative that delivers those intense insights, and so much more.
His account of the attack goes beyond our shattered front door, our scorched Stars and Stripes, our bombed and smoldering Marine house. It goes beyond the heroism of three Marines crossing open ground under threat of fire to reach their weapons in the chancery. It goes beyond the young Sri Lankan guard who took out the lead attacker before he himself was shot dead. Matos’ account puts the attack in broader context, tying it to the insurgency in Iraq and the resulting Second Battle of Fallujah. That battle, which raged from November through the end of December 2004, resulted in the death of an estimated 2,000 insurgents and civilians, and more than a hundred Coalition forces. The battle likely inspired members of an insurgent group called the Fallujah Brigade to storm our compound and get their revenge by killing U.S. Marines stationed there. “My place in this big picture,” Matos writes, “came in early December when five men, who had been fighting my fellow Marines in Iraq, came knocking at my door in Jeddah…”
I read and re-read about the attack with a mix of horror and comfort. Horror, for the obvious reason of mortality. Comfort, for the reminder that as I hunkered beneath the visa counter, tallying the doors between myself and the murderous rampage taking place outside, it wasn’t the number of doors that mattered (by one count there were four; by another, only one). But at the time my dread stopped with the Marine I knew to be standing post, trained for this crisis to keep us safe. I survived thanks to Matos’ courage, and it was personal and important to me to understand his story. By some measures, it can be summed up by his Bronze Star citation, which reads: For heroic achievement while engaged in military action against al-Qaeda terrorists as a marine Embassy Guard…