In preparing for a temporary assignment to Afghanistan in 2003, Frank Light rediscovered a journal he had kept for a few weeks as a Peace Corps volunteer in that country more than thirty years earlier. Later he fleshed out the journal, starting a process that led to a draft memoir titled Adjust to Dust: On the Backroads of Southern Afghanistan. Fourteen literary reviews and anthologies have published excerpts from it. Further to Afghanistan, he met his wife on the cliffside Buddha in Bamiyan that the Taliban would later blow up, and in 2005/2006 he worked on Afghanistan policy while detailed to the Pentagon. Now retired from government service, he has resumed interests stoked years ago in the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine. A few of his poems and other essays have also recently been published.
(Photo: Kerry Greene)
Disclaimer: "The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States Government."
October Surprise by Frank Light
C. The Chief of Police
Tracers streaked outside Ripley’s western perimeter as a medevac chopper landed the night of the day we returned from an exploratory trip to Chora. The next morning our soldiers on Ripley heard a machine gun followed by small-arms fire in town. The 2/5 said the Governor’s militia killed two Taliban that night, in Chenartu, apparently. Our interpreter reported Rozi Khan was back, so I hitched a ride with our three military policemen to the police station.
It sat on prime real estate in the heart of the government quarter. The main building had a new, second story overlooking irrigated fields that flushed with poppy in the spring. The station had an exterior wall, always a consideration in Tarin Kot, and more square footage than most government compounds. It fell short on upkeep, however. Trash and broken furniture had been dumped behind the addition the 2/5 had recently financed. The 2/5 had also contracted for that second story. Work on it stalled when the contractor ran out of rebar and cement.
With his brother, Rozi greeted us warmly, shaking our hands with both of his and inviting us to his office on the unfinished upper deck. The three MPs, a soldier from our escort, our interpreter, and I sat on rope beds, Rozi and his brother on the floor. Our hosts claimed they hadn’t heard the gunfire; it must have been a wedding. Rozi's eyes, off-green and radiant, like pond scum in sunlight, connected with a smile he could not contain even though he tried because we were feeling each other out. His brother's grin was similar but broader. It suggested a smirk. I once considered him insecure. I now saw him as a wise guy, maybe all you could aspire to when your brother ran the show. Rozi was older, and you could tell it from more than the age markers beginning to surface on his cheeks and brow. His posture was straighter. So was his gaze.
He didn’t say much at first. He didn’t have to. The weapon crates stacked behind him, against the wall away from the beds, said it all. They spoke of Kabul’s imprimatur, a rebalancing in favor of the police. We foreigners had already started that transition by providing vehicles, radios, renovations, and training. Kabul and Bagram emphasized support for the police and the army as national institutions. Prodded by the global community, the Coalition was distancing itself from warlords and their militias. Too many crimes had been committed under their banners, and they were the antithesis of the modern state we were trying to establish. But Uruzgan's preeminent warlord – Jan Mohammed – happened to be its governor, a presidential appointee. His militia filled a breach. The two Afghan National Army companies in the province, one at the American base in Deh Rawud, the other at Ripley, didn't go out much and when they did it was always in the company of American advisors. The militia's greater numbers, higher tempo, and gubernatorial sanction made them the dominant indigenous force. Bobcat 6 tried to shape their conduct without getting stuck on a tarbaby. His subordinates kept in close touch with the Afghan Army’s advisors. He left the police to the PRT.
In Kandahar I'd been told the police had a force of 300 men. Closer to 150, the 2/5 maintained. Our MPs thought 100 was more like it. I'd never seen one in uniform. Rumor had it they refused to wear the ones we provided for fear of being mocked by the townsfolk and attacked by the Taliban or Matiollah's men. Although they concentrated on Tarin Kot, they also searched for Taliban independently of the Governor's militia, especially east of town and in the parts of Chora, including Chenartu, where the Barakzai predominated. Like the Governor, Rozi could call on tribal reserves. Some district police chiefs reported to him, others to Jan Mohammed. Personal and tribal relationships determined the chain of command.
The competition didn’t seem to wear on Rozi. Maybe the time away had invigorated him. Not even the downward turn of his mustache could mask his smile. The hair under his lip led to a well-trimmed beard that came to a point several inches below his chin. He was younger than the Governor, maybe younger than Atiqullah. More obviously than those two, he cared about his appearance, and he might have done some shopping in Kabul. The first embroidered shawl I ever noticed on a man lay across his shoulder. Silver threads woven into his black turban played off the gloss in his shawl and the gray of his salwar kamiz. On his feet were black, elfin shoes; no socks. His brother wore a wedding ring. Rozi did not, his only jewelry a metal-banded watch on his left wrist. A handkerchief poked out of his upper vest pocket, a radio antenna out of the larger one underneath it. For all the sartorial flash, he wasn’t as outgoing as the Governor. He soon cut to the chase. He had to get to Kandahar to talk to Bronco 6, the American brigade commander.
What about? I asked. Bobcat 6, one grade lower and subordinate to Bronco 6, would need a strong reason. Rozi had been gone for nearly two months, he must have passed through Kandahar on his way back, and we had an election coming.
He didn’t want to say.
I noted helicopters were available only for emergencies until the election was over.
The Governor was trying to influence the election, he responded.
Rozi shook his head and smiled. He said it could wait.
The election was more important than any one person, I remarked. I hoped it didn’t sound as pompous in Pashtu, but I think it did. In my younger days I could banter with the best of them. Years in the bureaucracy had taken that out of me.
He mentioned that the Governor had written Minister Jalali a letter urging him to appoint Matiollah to Rozi’s position as provincial Director of Security. The Minister showed Rozi that letter and, by way of answer, sent him back with 100 uniforms and 300 AK-47s. Rozi lifted a Kalashnikov out of the topmost crate and passed it to us. It was straight from the factory, redolent of steel and oil. The MPs tried to determine its place of manufacture. Czechoslovakia, as I recall. Staying on message, I said the police and the militia needed to work together. And they all needed to work with JEMB and the Coalition. Rozi nodded.
A policeman brought tea. That was a good sign, though not unexpected. Rozi appreciated the support we Americans were providing even as he understood it was not personal; it was directed to a force for law and order. Or at least order.
His brother spoke, noting that our assistance was necessary because the Governor withheld the police food allowance, forcing the brothers to feed their men from the family farm and from friends and concerned citizens who could afford it. In desperation Rozi was sending one of his own, a recent graduate of Tarin Kot High, to Kabul to learn how to keep records. If Jalali saw potential in him, he might send salaries directly to the police.
In the two days since Rozi’s return he had met with Atiqullah, offering him police escort for the JEMB vehicles to Chora. The escorts would attach to the police in Chora for the election. Rozi didn’t offer escort to Khas Uruzgan, however. It was distant, and he had no understanding with the police chief there. He told Atiqullah the 2/5 should do it. He promised to do whatever he could for the election in the districts where his men operated – Tarin Kot and Chora. He didn’t know the location of any polling sites, however, and he hadn’t met with the Governor. I said the left hand should know what the right was doing. He sighed. That was his duty, he acknowledged, even though the Governor always made trouble. In the most recent affront, Matiollah’s men were detaining Rozi’s because they didn’t have the ID card the Governor had started issuing his militia. The police worked for the national government, Rozi continued, not for Matiollah.
Matiollah works for the Governor, I noted. The Governor works for the President.
Rozi didn’t respond. As a native Uruzgani he knew we couldn’t resolve these contradictions. He just knew we knew he'd work them.
D. All Together Now
We finally arranged a plenary session in the Governor’s office five days before the election. Bobcat 6 and the PRT commander attended. So did the Governor and Atiqullah, each uneasy in the other’s presence. From behind his corner desk the Governor thrust out his chest and tucked in his chin. He was too used to giving orders to keep his thoughts to himself. Frowning, shoulders hunched, Atiqullah looked everywhere but at him, at the ceiling, mostly. He considered himself an independent operator, certainly not a subordinate. Rozi sent a factotum. We knew the man was powerless because he wore a uniform. Rozi never did. Nor did his brother. Nor, of course, Matiollah. He attended as did his pudgy boss, a figurehead we could tell by the uniform and smiles.
The Governor announced that Matiollah was back from Chenartu, where men under his command killed a talib in women’s clothing. The deceased didn’t walk like a woman, the Governor explained with a leer. There were more Taliban where that came from, but Matiollah couldn’t stay to finish the job because 70-80 of them had assembled at the other end of the province, in Charchina. The District Chief would give Charlie Company the particulars.
Turning avuncular, the Governor said he knew Charlie had to fortify its base. The District Chief could help with that. He could find laborers, maybe even construction materials. But the company needed to get out and be active. The few patrols they ran weren’t deterring anyone. The Taliban were moving in and the people were moving out even though they had nowhere to go. Deh Rawud certainly had no place for them. That morning, the 2/5 civil affairs team told him, a car triggered an IED as it passed an American convoy north of Deh Rawud town. No one was injured, although the car was destroyed. The Governor knew we were trying. We just didn’t understand the Taliban. Only Special Forces were willing to learn, willing to work with those who knew from long and bitter experience how the Taliban operated, how devious they could be. He let that sink in. His hands set on the desk, signaling an intention to rise. As a matter of fact, he had to leave right away. Our Special Forces needed him and his men for an operation out of Deh Rawud. We should continue the meeting without him. His secretary would brief him on his return.
Bobcat 6’s lower jaw dropped a notch, and Asim muttered in his ear. Rob leaned in. The PRT commander was too tall to bend that far. It’d be unseemly. Left ankle propped on the right knee, hands clasped on the other knee, he smiled a smile that suggested what goes around comes around. He wouldn’t have maintained silence, you could tell, had he been in charge of election preparations.
The Governor stepped out from his desk. No suit coat today; he was dressed for the country. Only his secretary rose with him.
What about the election? Bobcat 6 snapped, his irritation clear.
The Governor stopped in his tracks. What about it? I don’t see the police chief.
He’s coming, the factotum piped up. Large body, squeaky voice.
The Governor ignored him. How can we discuss security without the police chief?
I can explain, the factotum pleaded. He'd lowered his voice.
The Governor said he couldn’t wait. The Taliban were on the move.
Atiqullah? Bobcat 6 turned his way. Any hot issues?
Atiqullah dismissed it with a flick of his wrist.
The Governor might have caught the gesture out of the corner of his eye. No time for that. Deh Rawud beckoned.
You should visit Charlie Company, Bobcat 6 called in parting. You’d be surprised by all they’re doing.
The Governor nodded the way people do when distracted. Going as both host, and guest, of our Special Forces could complicate his freedom of action.
The Australian from Global Risk stood to request the Governor’s help transporting the polling furniture to Khas Uruzgan.
That made the Governor even more impatient. He turned to the South African, who, still seated, stretched out his leg to fit a notepad into his pants pocket. JEMB should use its reaction force, the Governor growled.
The South African shook his head. Spare of build, about 30 years of age, he had on the same trousers, shirt, and sandals he wore the other day, a sign he traveled light. That plus a silver chain around his neck, cord bracelet on his left wrist, silver band on the right ring finger, no-time-to-shave beard, and hair too short to bother with could lead a person to think he might have once been an operator in his country’s armed forces. That may have accounted, in part, for his restraint. We’re tapped out, he said.
Asim hesitated with the translation.
As if the Governor wanted to hear it. He said JEMB’s guards were the problem.
Four dollars a day is our max, the Australian declared with an emphasis on the max. Known as Brown Dog, he’d had a career as an army engineer. His penchant for getting the measurements right transferred well to budgets, logistics, and personnel, his responsibilities with the JEMB. He believed in the slippery slope.
The Governor glared. He also believed in the slippery slope.
We asked JEMB for an exception, Brown Dog elaborated. He was built like a fireplug, and had the face and stance of a scrapper. No exceptions, they told us. He worked on keeping his cool.
They got six for registration, the Governor reminded him. He meant dollars per day.
I already explained this, Brown Dog said. He knew he was being tested. To Matiollah, he added.
Matiollah’s shoulders stiffened.
The Governor exploded. Moving furniture wasn’t his job. The police should do it.
His glare shifted to Rozi’s representative.
The representative agreed.
They’re lazy, the Governor snarled. Or scared.
He turned to Atiqullah for the first time and said, in the reassuring voice one friend uses with another, your guards can handle it.
Atiqullah had been sitting through all this with a sardonic smile. Now he adopted a professorial stance, as though looking through bifocals. It suggested he either still had a lot to learn about the Governor or he knew him only too well.
Just pay them, the Governor elaborated.
He bustled upstairs, where the bathroom was (the palace, JEMB, and the NGO had the only flush toilets in Uruzgan). He didn’t seem really angry. It wasn’t fake, either. After all, anger led to action. And it satisfied.
Everybody took a breath.
His secretary looked at us, an ointment under his eye. Skin cancer, rumor had it. It was getting better, our interpreter said the other day. He should know: named Mohib, he was the secretary’s nephew. We told his uncle he could go. The meeting was over. He hurried to catch up, the Governor already thumping back down the stairs. Matiollah slow-walked in the man’s wake, his head bobbing, a fuck-you grin for us all.
Atiqullah coughed out a laugh.
Our special friends strike again, Bobcat 6 lamented.
Election? the PRT commander asked no one in particular. What election?
The outer courtyard was fuller than I’d ever seen it. In addition to the usual hangers-on and us foreigners spilling out of the palace, a pack of militiamen clustered around several pickups and two vintage SUVs parked in a line that led to the exterior gate. They were waiting for the Governor.
At that moment Rozi pulled up in the just-washed silver and blue SUV he had brought, courtesy of the Germans, from Kabul. Problems in Chenartu, he explained, doing his best to suppress a smile. He had to send some men.
The Governor strode past with a brisk nod in our direction and nothing at all for Rozi. His face was grim, his posture braced, his gait that of a man responding to the bugle’s call. Reveling in the moment, Matiollah brought up the rear. The militia hustled to board their vehicles while he and the Governor settled into a dinged-up SUV that was third in line. In what would be the Governor’s first travel to the districts since a rocket-propelled grenade detonated in front of him early that summer, the convoy headed for Deh Rawud. He once told us he had killed 100 Taliban.
100 and counting.
The greatest reaction to my reporting occurred when I characterized Rozi and the Governor’s relationship as dysfunctional. Keyed for the election, Bagram was now reading State’s PRT messages, and somebody there asked Bobcat 6 what the heck was going on, how come he hadn’t mentioned this? Field commanders didn’t like to report problems. It invited micromanagement. Bobcat 6 assured headquarters the situation was under control. He razzed me about it at the afternoon briefing, knowing I always ran my reports by his executive officer before transmitting. They had become one more variable to account for.
Events confirmed his assessment, as things worked out in the typically non-linear fashion. We even got Rozi, Atiqullah, and the Governor together in the palace after the latter returned from Deh Rawud, where nothing much seemed to have happened, at least that we could ascertain. The three of them were on their best behavior, stiff, agreeable, and cold, like couples in public after a spat. I think Karzai and/or Jalali might have called them following a request from Bagram. The police agreed to work from the polling sites out to 500 meters in Tarin Kot and Chora towns. The Governor’s militia would patrol the streets outside the police cordon, and they would keep all private vehicles out of the towns. American commanders in the districts reached similar understandings with the local militias. The 2/5 would be on a 15-minute fuse, or string, as the military called it, to respond anywhere in Atiqullah’s area of responsibility plus Nesh, in Kandahar Province.
Thus Rozi, Atiqullah, and the Governor came to an electoral co-existence. Rozi's brother said of course: it was the Afghan way. Brown Dog laughed when I told him. The Afghan way meant something different to him, something to be avoided. He knew the Third World. He’d toiled in the islands north of Australia. But he had to be true to himself, true to the reason he was sent here. His manner more that of a first sergeant than the officer he had been, he liked clarity. If his surname hadn’t been Brown, matching his hair color, Bulldog would have been an apt moniker.
He couldn’t recruit enough guards for Chenartu. The Governor offered his own for $10 per day. Brown Dog put his foot down. He was authorized six per site at a $30 flat rate, no matter how many days. He finally got a few from Rozi’s force and more from the Chenartu militia commander, one of the Governor’s minions. The Governor agreed as long as Brown Dog gave him the pay to distribute. On hearing that, Brown Dog shook his head and smiled.
In an odd manifestation of the compromises that developed, the Governor’s militia guarded the western half of the JEMB compound, the police the eastern side. The Governor’s men used their posts to catch up on their sleep, according to Brown Dog. He tried to enlist the police released from the western wall for his reaction force. He couldn’t get enough, they didn’t report for training, the crew-served weapons never came through, and so he gave up on the idea. If the stink hit the fan, JEMB would mayday for the 2/5. He grinned a soldier’s grin. You did what you could.
Rob and I tried to meet every day with at least one if not all the three principals. We never again got them together in one room. Bobcat 6 and the PRT commander joined us when higher authority could make a difference. The meetings blur in my memory. I remember one day the Governor was excited by news that Matiollah’s men had killed seven more Taliban in Chenartu. He claimed to know the names of six. The 2/5 civil affairs captain told Bobcat 6 he’d seen the bodies in the palace garden, each shot in the head. If they were Taliban, Asim asked us Americans while the Governor boasted about how many more he could take down if we combined forces, how would he know their names?
Headquarters tried to help. An Afghan trucker appeared at Ripley with papers from Bagram and 250 sets of riot gear but no guidance as to whether they were for American or Afghan use. When queried, Bagram promised to look into it. The MPs crammed the gear into a conex then talked Rozi into sharing some of his new AKs and uniforms with the police in Chora and Nesh. The Ministry of Interior intervened, nixing Nesh; that was in another province.
Atiqullah informed us that Karzai’s brother would arrive for the election. Although the man lived in Kandahar and owned a restaurant in Baltimore, he had represented Uruzgan at last year's constituent assembly in Kabul. Atiqullah also said a French observer might fly in, and the Embassy advised that an American ex-Special Forces turned big-time contractor would come to observe.
The Embassy then emailed a heads-up about observer credentials and a ban on firearms within 500 meters of polling stations. Sound policy for the cities but so un-Uruzgan. No Afghan was going to ask an American for credentials. Not that any ever reached Uruzgan. The JEMB security chief in Kandahar dismissed all that when he rode the White Elephant up for a whirlwind visit. Don’t sweat the 500-meters, he told us. Just don’t take guns into the polling sites.
Rob suggested a concealed weapon. I had lent him my Pashtu primers, and I was sure I could have borrowed his pistol. That ran counter to Embassy doctrine, however, and it contradicted the rule I’d formulated in the Peace Corps: if you carried, you had to know when to use, especially if you were out by yourself. That required a knowledge of the language and local scene far exceeding my own.
As an alternative, the PRT commander said he’d send two or more soldiers with me to any polling station. They would wait outside while I entered. The JEMB guards on site would also be armed.
The JEMB security chief brought the back pay. By then the wildcat strike had fizzled out, and most coordinators returned to their districts. They would either get paid or they wouldn’t, and Atiqullah told them they definitely wouldn’t if they didn’t go back to work. A C-130 landed at Ripley with the ballots and ballot boxes. Global Risk hauled the shipment to the JEMB compound. It was Atiqullah’s job to push it to the districts. After Brown Dog's reaction force fell through, Atiqullah told him to pay the Governor the $10 a day he was demanding for guards to escort the shipments to Charchina, Kijran, and Gizab. JEMB Kabul authorized an exception to their $4 a day limit. The ballots arrived in good order despite the Governor’s reports of attacks on each convoy. No one was injured in those attacks.
Atiqullah asked Bobcat 6 for helicopters to bring in the ballots from Gizrab and Kijran after the election when time and ballot integrity would be of the essence. State had already paid JEMB for that and so pressured the military to stay out of it. Months earlier, during voter registration, Bagram directed the Marines not to fly the documentation to Kandahar. And the UN security chief had once said he’d transport the ballots there by armed convoy. Bobcat 6 brought that up. Atiqullah asked if those two spoke during the chief’s most recent visit.
Atiqullah claimed the UN wasn’t saying that anymore.
Rob confirmed it. Bobcat 6 said they’d do what was necessary.
Half the PRT force concentrated on Tarin Kot district; they eventually scouted every voting site, and they’d seen several in Chora on our foray there. The other half prepared to accompany Ripley’s Afghan Army contingent and its three American advisors to Gizab, the Pashtun enclave in southern Daikundi. It’d be their first time to the district. We’d heard the inhabitants had asked to join Daikundi, a province of different ethnicity and language, one even more remote than Uruzgan, to escape Jan Mohammed’s predatory rule. Jan Mohammed didn’t see it that way. He claimed Gizab’s elders had petitioned Kabul to rejoin Uruzgan and Karzai promised he’d make it happen after the election.
Kerry would go as a civilian observer. Since, as far as we knew, no PRT or other foreigners covered the province, he could also look for potential development projects in the district capital. The previous PRT team had contracted for a school in Gizab. He’d tried to check it out. They were going to helicopter in.
Meanwhile the trucks hired to haul the furniture to Chora failed to show at the appointed hour. Just as well: the furniture wasn’t ready for loading. A day later it all came together even though one trucker left before the other and the second took a different route, causing each to think the other had disappeared. Both made it to Chora with their just-in-time inventory.
Atiqullah sent the Khas Uruzgan furniture in a truck escorted by a handful of his guards who volunteered for the trip. He told the stranded staff from Khas Uruzgan to go with them or forfeit their pay. They went. Staff and furniture arrived without incident.
On the Wednesday before election Saturday, Global Risk reported that ballots had not gotten to Langur, the most troubled part of Chenartu, apparently because the JEMB guards chickened out on the way. The Governor promised to send militia from Chenartu town. Deh Rawud called to say six ballot boxes arrived without lids. They called back later to say the lids had been found. An IED exploded in Deh Rawud town. No injuries.
On Thursday the Gizab choppers were cancelled. A half-hour ride turned into a day-and-a-half road trip. The PRT force planned to overnight north of Chora town. The Governor told us the Chenartu militia weren’t going to Langur. They lacked the firepower. Atiqullah said Languris would have to come to Tarin Kot to vote. The 2/5 picked up Taliban chatter about ambushing PRT patrols in Tarin Kot. And it passed a report that Taliban were stopping cars, checking satellite phones, and executing the owners of those with politically incorrect numbers on their call list. No source, no place, it sounded apocryphal. An IED destroyed a vehicle outside Charlie Company's compound in Charchina. That night small arms and rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the compound.
Charlie reported more harassing fire on Friday. No casualties. The Governor complained that Americans – Special Forces, apparently – killed four of his men who ran when the Americans approached their compound in Charchina. They were scared, he explained; Taliban would have stayed and fought.
In preparation for the election, he called up his reserves and distributed ID cards to his militia. He had only 900 cards, he said, so each served for five men. Never missing an opportunity to show up the Governor, Rozi got his police to deliver the ballots to Langur. Bravo Company headed for Nesh. Rob, the 2/5 civil affairs team (captain, medic, and commo man), and I drove to the JEMB compound, where I spotted the first sign of campaigning I’d seen in the province. A Karzai poster had been pasted to the exterior wall. I mentioned it to Atiqullah, and he had the poster removed. No favoritism.
Four of us five houseguests brought American firepower, which was welcomed. I brought a Thuraya and a laptop for connecting to the Internet. Although my civilian status made Brown Dog sniffy at first, he let me put a cot in his room and use his satellite dish to link up with the Embassy. Rob also bunked in his room, which was larger than the others. The civil affairs team moved into the room next door with their radio, weaponry, DVD player, cards, poker chips, corn chips, muffins, cereal, canned sausages, canned cheese, water, soda, and meals ready to eat. The South African slept in a room around the corner, next to Atiqullah’s. The JEMB safe haven – it didn’t seem all that strong – was a small room on the other side of Brown Dog’s. They kept their radio in it. Although it featured a metal door with a bolt, rocket-propelled grenades or a sledgehammer would have made short work of the walls.
The captain prepared cheese dogs over a camp stove. I had two. Music twittered from the DVD player. The medic and commo man moved a table into the breezeway. A poker game ensued. Cigars were lit, stories swapped. In America, candidates Kerry and Bush debated. Nobody mentioned it. Taking advantage of the amenities, I took my first warm shower in months. Refreshed, I shot off an email to King County, Washington. I was afraid my absentee ballot wouldn’t arrive in time.
Susan P. Blevins was born in England, lived 26 years in Italy, and has now resided in the USA for the past 23 years, first in Taos, NM, and currently in Houston, TX. While living in Rome she had a weekly column in an international, English-language newspaper, writing about food and restaurant reviews primarily, though not exclusively. Since living in the USA she has written pieces on gardens and gardening for N. American and European publications, and she is now writing stories of her life and travels, and gaining traction in various literary publications. She loves reading, writing, playing the piano, classical music, cats and stimulating conversation.
MY OLD GARDEN by Susan P. Blevins
I have not seen my garden since I sold my house five years ago. How has it fared? How are the trees and shrubs managing without my loving attention to sustain them?
The big black gate to my old property is ajar as I drive by. It is spring, and the woman who bought my house lives in Florida in the winter, and comes to Taos only in the summer. I doubt she is in residence yet. I cannot see my garden, just the treetops peeping tantalizingly over the high wall I built to enclose the paradise I had created. The temptation is too great. I park the car on the verge of the dirt road and saunter over to the gate.
I slip inside with wildly beating heart and let my eyes take in the bleak scene laid out before me:
beds empty of flowers, shrubs more dead than alive, weeds everywhere, my favorite tree a dead relic of happy times, and stagnant water filling the features that used to flow and gurgle boisterously with clean, bright water.
Tears well up and flow down my cheeks as I survey the desolation, neglect, and abuse. The new owner has dogs and they have made the garden their own. Their arrogant shit lies all over the yawning, empty vegetable beds, where once abundance reigned.
Dead also the fairies and the devas, or perhaps just departed for greener gardens? I wallow in the feeling of death all around me, outer and inner, in this place that I once loved and cherished, the palette of my creative expression. Self pity and sorrow play out a while as I wander in the alien landscape like a soul freshly dead finding itself in purgatory.
But it is spring, the snow has melted, and life itself cannot be killed, just as God cannot be killed. On looking more closely, I spy tender spears of dusty green piercing the hard earth: the first snowdrops, heralding the coming triumphant army of dauntless daffodils and narcissus, followed by rainbow array of tulips.
My heart stills, and I breath deep, knowing that despite all, life continues and thrives beneath the surface of abandon. Beauty will follow, and my valiant plants will continue to give unceasingly of themselves, to feed the souls of all who venture into their orbit.
My inner sight sees my former self as a shadow of light, moving, touching, blessing each and every growing thing, reassuring them that all is not lost. The fairies and devas return and work their magic. Life returns.
After such prayerful meditation and full spectrum of emotions, I slip out of the gate, peaceful and philosophical. I’ve always heard it’s a bad idea to go back to places, and this experience confirms it, though it was not a wasted visit. I have left my ongoing blessing to nurture the denizens of this little corner of paradise, not lost, but found, and I have also witnessed the indomitability of life and made it my own.
She graduated from Florida Atlantic University with her MFA in fiction. She is currently teaching at Miami Dade College. Her book Dead Ends is available on Amazon. Her story “The Old Freak is Dead” is featured in the Rozlyn Press Anthology for Women Writers. Her nonfiction piece “Cats and Drag Queens” is featured in The Gravel, and “Secret Agent Man” is in Sliver of Stone. Her story “South Beach Die—It” is in If and Only If, and “River Monsters” is in The Chaffin Journal.
Spider-Man and the Old Man by Christina Fulton
In 1962 Spider-Man swung into the sticky pop-culture Terro trap in Amazing Fantasy # 15. He was the fantastic, ultimate, spectacular, and amazing love child of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Even though my father was young enough to get lost in all the web slinging and wall crawling whimsy, I do not know if the eight year old version of my father partook in Peter Parker’s often cathartic escapades in thwarting the criminal/superhuman underworld.
However, I do know that this particular character and some of his associates scurried into his life towards the very last panel. I think my father first became truly aware of Spider-Man when Toby Maguire crawled out of the Hollywood drain pipe in 2002 and into America’s post 9/11 grief stricken psyche. I remember my father watching the first movie late one night on HBO and being completely in awe and ensnared by that final image of Spider-Man stuck heroically to the side of a pole proudly brandishing a never faltering and always fluttering American flag.
“That was a great movie and what an ending,” he said, while skimming through the TV guide looking for another nocturnal distraction. My father suffered from insomnia his whole life and would dart back in forward during the night between binge eating and watching way too much porn. My parents had stopped sleeping in the same bed when I was very little. At first the excuses ranged from his earsplitting snoring to his late work hours, but after I discovered his propensity for marital infidelity in high school, I did not blame my mother for wanting to sleep with no one but The Sandman.
On this occasion, I had gotten up to get something to drink, and I was shocked to find him actually watching something on our premium channels besides his usual titty titty bang bang skin flicks. I had found him on many occasions passed out to them come early morning, and would promptly shut them off before making my way to the bus stop. My mother didn’t need to see that. Nobody needed to see that, especially before breakfast.
“You like Spider-Man?” I said, while pouring myself some soda.
“Yeah, it has a really deep message to it,” he laughed, getting up and foraging in the freezer. At the time I believed my father was about as deep as an ice cube tray, so I ignored him and went back to my room. I just figured it was more of his American grandstanding. My father would often express his love for America by sporadically saying,
“Great country, America!” Then, he would follow that up with a thirty minute speech on how lucky we were to live in this country or a sixty minute tirade on what factors/ethnicities/political parties were destroying this country. I just figured he was picking up on the overwhelmingly symbolic patriotism and the thinly veiled 9/11 allusions that were strung up all over the script. Yes, the ending flag scene was extremely patriotic, but there was more. There was a symbolic large scale attack on New York City during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade by a “seemingly” new threat. Then, there is the scene when New York symbolically stands up to evil during the fight on the bridge by having various city residences, of all races and classes, stand up to The Green Goblin, by saying,
“You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.” This one line alone was spot on for all the sentiments being pumped out by the media machine. Also, let’s not forget Uncle Ben’s death and Peter’s overwhelming guilt that would follow him through the next two sequels. He could have stopped the mugger outside of the office at the wrestling ring, but chose to do nothing. This alludes nicely to the interagency government slap fight on whose lack of action/intelligence left the rest of us citizens holding the bag of debris. In addition, to how the news outlets made finger pointing look like a high endurance Olympic sport in the months and years to come.
It was not until graduate school did I realize that my father was not picking up on the patriotic undertones of that movie at all. It was on our last father/daughter trip to Islands of Adventure, in Orlando that Spider-Man’s mask came off and Peter Parker had a mirror for a face.
My father had just passed one of the signs for the park that included everyone’s favorite web head, and he suddenly grabbed his cellphone and said,
“Oh, that reminds me! I better call, Alfonso, before he screws up.” He dialed the number to his office and commenced ripping my second cousin five extra assholes for something he hadn’t even done yet, but my father most assuredly thought that he would do if he wasn’t around to save the day. Alfonso had been with my father’s home improvement company on and off throughout the years and worshipped my father. My cousin often told me how much he wanted to be like him. I would cringe and tell him psychically to aim a little higher than a man with a mistress, wild mood swings, multiple heart surgeries, and the ability to startle every dog in a three mile radius when he took to Man-Wolf howling at his employees. Unfortunately, I don’t think my cousin realized that if he was going to be truly like my father he would have to acquire superpowers.
“Spider-Man and I have a lot common,” he growled, after angrily clicking off his cellphone.
“Yeah, we both have the power to feel bad things coming,” he suddenly laughed,
signaling one of his dramatic shifts in personality. These moments had become normal to me.
“Do you mean spider sense?” I said, recalling my Marvel trivia.
“Yeah, that! I always know when someone is about to screw up or something bad is about to happen. I am always on my toes, just like Spidey.”
“Um, are you sure you’re not confusing that with real world paranoia?” He ignored my comment and moved on to his next comparison point.
“Also, didn’t his father tell him with great power comes great responsibility?”
“No, his Uncle, Ben, told him that. He lived with his aunt and uncle. His parents were CIA agents and died in a plane crash.”
“Whatever, the point is that it is my responsibility to use this power for good,” he laughed taking one hand off the wheel and pretending to shoot me with an invisible web shooter.
“By constantly yelling at your employees and causing years of emotional damage?”
“If that’s what it takes. I remember at the end of the movie he said, ‘This is my gift, my curse.’ If a few feelings get hurt in the process that is the curse part.”
“Okay, but to me, you’re more like J. Jonah Jameson than Spider-Man.”
“Peter Parker’s boss!” In reality, I wasn’t too shocked that he didn’t know about J.J., as my favorite version of Spider-Man use to call him in the cartoon series that aired from 1994-1998. However, Mister Jameson had been around for much longer.
He first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 back in 1963. He has been both the editor-in-chief and publisher of The Daily Bugle, and along with being associated with variety of other presses, he even managed to become The Mayor of New York in a 2009 storyline.
However, no matter his accomplishments, generations of children will always remember him as the loud, obnoxious, and mustached “hater” who wanted Spider-Man brought to justice for his vigilantism. Yes, this sliver-topped and cigar chomping man was actually, in my mind, more of my father’s Marvel totem than Spider-Man. The fact that you could hear J.J. screaming through the door when he was on the phone across The Daily Bugle’s bullpen of most cartoon and comic book depictions was enough. My father was famous for that exact same thing around his office. In fact, my father could be heard from outside the building. What is even more surprising is that both these men did that well into their AARP years, while smoking, and suffering from multiple heart episodes.
I also discovered another similarity between them years after my version of J.J. died. It turns out both of them suffered from emotionally detrimental daddy issues. Jameson’s father was a famous war hero, but at home he would abuse his wife and son. Thus, some people speculate this childhood trauma led to his initial distrust of everyone’s favorite neighborhood web slinger. I found a quote of this character saying,
“Even the real heroes can't keep it up all the time.” I do not know if my grandfather hit my father, but I know my grandfather suffered from schizophrenia and left his family for a life of being in and out of mental institutions and half-way homes. My father was very young and believed, up until the day he died, that my grandfather had abandoned him. Many people, including myself, tried to explain to him that he didn’t “abandon” him, but he was mentally ill. It is my personal theory that this is why my father had the overwhelming need to be liked and to be constantly around other people. He would go to great lengths to have the most opulent house and the most tricked out boat that everyone wanted to visit or go out on. He once told me that he hated when it was quiet. I responded by saying,
“Are you afraid of being alone with your own thoughts?”
“No, Dr. Freud, it just gets boring!” He laughed wildly.
When we reached Marvel Super Hero Island he was meth head level excited to go on the 3-D Spider-Man ride. While waiting in line, I pointed out J.J. to him on the pre-ride entertainment monitors above our heads.
“Oh, yeah… that guy,” my father laughed. He then spent the rest of our time in line perfecting a spot on Jameson impersonation that made everyone around us laugh. After the ride, my father admitted that he may be a little like Jameson after all, but he still had Spider-Man’s sixth sense.
“The best of both worlds!” He exclaimed, as we exited into the gift shop. He then went on to explain that he was tough like J.J. and quick thinking like Spidey. Except, he had one piece of sharp criticism for both characters,
“How can a guy who has been in the newspaper business that long not know Peter Parker is Spider-Man? I mean didn’t he think it was kind of suspicious that only this one photographer could get these great shots of Spider-Man. And how big are Parker’s balls to even think of pulling off a scam like that! He could have been caught at any time. I like to think I am little smarter than both of them,” he laughed.
I would like, no, love to think that my father was smarter than that. However, one to two years later, time and its twisted origami sense of humor created a final panel that may have been cruel, but true to comic book form ironic. My father thought he could scam the IRS, which is run by a whole rabid heard of J. Jonah Jamesons that could yell louder and threaten people better than my father ever could. He managed to keep the gritty details about it hidden, but we did find out that part of it had to do with cashing checks illegally. When he told my mother and I that he was facing jail time, I wasn’t shocked, but I still had to ask,
“What were you thinking?” He didn’t say anything, or maybe he couldn’t say anything. Maybe coming to terms with the fact that he wasn’t a superhero and couldn’t outmaneuver and foresee everything had squished all those Spider-Man-esque witticisms. He just looked at me like a little kid who just found out that superheroes aren’t real, and you can’t crawl your way out of everything with a joke and a smile.
Joan Lindsay Kerr is a teacher, writer, and traveler. She currently serves as the president of the California Association for the Gifted and several of her articles on parenting gifted children have been published in the journal, Gifted Education Communicator. Joan’s other passion is travel and travel writing. Some of her travel stories can be found on the website Globejotting: A Home for Global Storytelling. A personal journal of her travel adventures can be found on her blog at www.travelswithrobby.com. Joan is a member of Writers of Kern, a branch of the California Writers Club.
Libby’s Story By Joan Lindsay Kerr
The heart monitor beat softly in the darkened ICU room. My beautiful, vivacious daughter, her skin porcelain against her chestnut hair, lay sleeping off the anesthetic from a four-hour surgery to remove a blood clot running from her ankle into her hip. Her exposed abdomen was black and blue from the 10-pound sand bag the nurse had used to stop the flow of blood from an incision that refused to clot, hindered by the blood thinner she would probably use for the rest of her life.
With Libby asleep, I could finally let down the brave and cheerful face that we put on for our children when they need us and let some quiet tears flow. I didn’t feel frightened. The quiet room, the IV bag hanging from the metal pole, the beeping monitors and soft lights, the cold silver trays all felt very familiar – almost comfortable. After all, she and I had lived in this environment for almost two years – 27 years before.
It started mildly enough. For about two weeks, two-year-old Libby had a “flu bug” that came and went. She threw up a few times and spent several days lying quietly on the couch – quite a change from our usual little dynamo who chattered non-stop from morning ‘til night. For awhile, she would bounce back and seem fine, then the mysterious illness would return. It wasn’t bad enough to take her to the doctor…that is, until the day that the pee in her brand-new potty chair came out bright red.
“Don’t worry,” said Dr. Penn. “It’s probably a bladder infection. We’ll start her on antibiotics and it should clear up very quickly.”
Three days later, she was still peeing blood and had become more lethargic. Dr. Penn looked more serious now and asked us to bring her to the clinic for a few tests. Libby was cooperative as the technicians took x-rays and did an ultrasound.
“Mr. and Mrs. Letlow, would you step in here, please?” I suddenly felt as if I had stepped into St. Elsewhere’s story-of-the-week.. The doctor escorted us into a small, dark room. He put an X-ray photo up on the lighted board. The fuzzy grey and white image of my daughter’s insides was meaningless to me until the doctor showed us how her left kidney was pushed to the side by a virtually invisible mass that was detected on the ultrasound. The most likely diagnosis was Wilms Tumor, a childhood kidney tumor - and malignant.
“Do you have any questions?” he asked. Questions? Yes, a million…and yes, only one. Is she going to die? Please, God, don’t let her die. We had no control so we sat silently, shell-shocked, trying to absorb the sudden change in our lives, while the doctors outlined the next steps. These included a trip to Stanford Children’s Hospital where Libby would have a few more tests and, most likely, immediate surgery to remove her kidney and the tumor.
That afternoon was a blur, packing for the hospital, arranging for my parents to come and take our 7-year-old son, Brian, home with them, calling work to arrange time off, and phoning friends to ask for prayers.
The next morning, we made the two-hour drive to Stanford Medical Center where Libby’s surgery was already scheduled. First, a new round of tests and blood work. Libby was beginning to realize that something very unusual and unpleasant was happening. She clung to me as the lab technician did her blood work, crying, “Mommy, dat lady don’t poke me!” Then she was wrapped in the tiny hospital gown, her mass of dark curls tucked into a little cap, and was wheeled away from us into surgery.
The wait was interminable. We didn’t talk much. We were both wrapped up in our fears and hid our feelings in a protective cocoon of silence. Yet I was vividly aware of the people around me and that each had a story. They were waiting for a daughter to come out of surgery, or for the good news that a test had come back negative, or for a beloved grandparent to die. Somehow, I felt intensely connected to everyone there.
Finally, the doctor came out and told us that Libby had come through the surgery well and that we could join her shortly in the ICU. She looked so tiny there in the big hospital bed. A huge bandage covered her abdomen. Her chest was dotted with plastic circles connecting her by a maze of tubes and wires to a sea of monitors. An IV tube trailed from her arm to the bag hanging on the tall silver pole by her bed. What really broke my heart was the reproachful look she gave us when she woke up. I don’t remember Libby crying much throughout the next week, but she remained silent and solemn.
I don’t remember many details about the next few days. It was an odd mix of stress – nerves stretched tight as we dealt with the frightening wait to get the results of the biopsy – and long periods of complete calm and inactivity. We took turns sitting by her bed, pretending to read, dozing, and watching mindless TV.
A few friends made the trip to visit and to bring gifts for Libby and for us. Friends from our church family stopped by with a check for $700 to help with expenses while we were off work. Dan and I both cried at their support and generosity. Dear Lana, who to this day remembers every one of her friends’ birthdays and anniversaries, came in with a teddy bear bigger than Libby herself. Libby patted the bear and wanted it to sit in the chair by her bed, but even the bear would not make her smile.
We got more bad news during the next few days. For nearly a week, the lab could not find evidence of cancer cells in the removed kidney. The doctor finally felt confident enough to say that perhaps we had gotten lucky and that it had been benign. I spread the good news to family and friends. The very next day, we were again summoned into a conference room for the news that she did have cancer after all. I finally stopped pretending to be strong and brave and sobbed helplessly while they began to explain what this would mean.
The doctors were encouraging and positive. Her prognosis was good. Wilms tumor, one of the childhood cancers, had an 80% survival rate and only required six weeks of chemotherapy.
A couple of days later, there was a new blow. Additional lab work indicated that she had “the bad Wilms tumor,” – a more rare and deadly form with only a 50% survival rate. Her treatment would involve immediate radiation to the affected side of her abdomen and a year and a half of chemotherapy. This time, we received the news more calmly. By now, the shocks and blows were bouncing off of us as we began to learn how to live an unexpected new way of life. But I still worried about how Libby was being affected. She had retreated into a somber shell, accepting the pokes, prods, and dressing changes silently.. Her outgoing and curious nature seemed destroyed.
The night before she was to be released from intensive care and transferred to the children’s ward, my parents - her beloved Nonnie and Boompa - arrived to see her. The minute her dear grandparents walked into the room, Libby’s eyes lit up and she smiled. With that smile, the stars in my heavens tumbled back into happy alignment. It was only the beginning of our long journey, but it was also the beginning of hope that everything would be all right.
The next two years were a roller coaster. There were many deep valleys, the saddest being when her “best friend” in the hospital, Alicia, a darling pink and white 2-year-old died of a brain tumor, and her big pal, Trevor, a spunky 13-year old, succumbed to leukemia. The worst moment for us came during the week Libby reacted badly to her first round of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy kills the cancer cells, but has the miserable side-effect of also killing healthy blood cells. Without these, Libby could not fight off normal, usually harmless, infections. Her temperature went soaring, she had to have a transfusion, and she once again withdrew into a motionless shell. I thought we would lose her. Even now, it is impossible to remember that time without a lump forming in my throat and tear pricking my eyes.
Her initial reaction to the chemotherapy improved over the next months, although we could count on a high fever and a trip to the hospital to be put on an IV drip of antibiotics ten days after each treatment. I learned, matter-of-factly, to clear my calendar ahead of time.
Libby became quite the medical expert. Her fears of the needle diminished. First, she didn’t want any kind of poke. Then she learned to ask, “Is it a finger poke, (acceptable) or an arm stick?” (a cause for tears). And by the end of the two years, she would march gallantly in and just stick her arm out on the tray, discussing her treatment in proper medical terminology (humorous coming from the lips of a four-year-old).
So there were peaks, as well, and even laughter. When her hair began to fall out, it started on the sides of her head, leaving her with a cute Mohawk hairdo. We took photos of Libby scowling ferociously like the A-Team’s Mr. T. The chemotherapy affected her muscle development, and her latent “lazy eye” went swooping inward, so she was now both bald and cross-eyed. She watched Dorothy skip down the Yellow Brick Road so many times that she and I both had every word, every song, every gesture of the movie memorized.
Visits to the hospital were made tolerable, and even fun, by the wonderful staff at Children’s Hospital. From Marsha, the receptionist who always greeted Libby by name, to Pat, who administered the chemotherapy, to the radiation staff, who sang to her, “When you have Libby, Libby, Libby on the label, label, label, you will like her, like her, like her on your radiation table!”
After the fears of the first few weeks, our frequent stays at Ronald McDonald House were even enjoyable. The staff was caring and provided lively activities for the children who were up to them and quiet rooms for artwork, television and movies for those who were not. Ronald McDonald himself came for a visit and photos one day, and the Doobie Brothers held an annual fundraising concert. Living with cancer became a “normal” way of life until the wonderful day when her oncologist, Dr. Michael Link, said that she was finished with all treatment and only needed to return for periodic check-ups. She returned to Stanford for annual visits until she was 18 years old, but by the end of her elementary school years, these had become primarily occasions to say hello to the staff and celebrate her victory.
We had always wondered if there would be any long term effects from her childhood cancer. We finally had our answer. Her doctors had discovered scarring in the arteries in her left side, caused by the radiation treatments 27 years before. Once again, we found ourselves together in the ICU.
Libby stirred and I rushed to her bedside. She opened her eyes, took my hand, and smiled. “I love you, Mom.”
“I love you, too, my precious daughter.”
And just as it had so many years ago, her smile reassured me that everything would be fine.
Libby is doing well. She was released from the hospital after a week and immediately returned to her college classes and her beloved theater. She continues on blood thinners and visits her doctor for regular check-ups.
She will always carry some battle scars from her experiences – a long, white slash across her belly from the first surgery, and a few new nicks and scars from the more recent one. She has a pronounced concavity on her left side where the radiation affected her soft tissue development, and the abnormal curvature of her spine from the same source causes her frequent back pain. But her doctors consider her to be a medical success story. We rarely think about her childhood illness any more, but I will never again take good health for granted.
Friends have asked if I was angry about Libby’s illness. I’ve always answered no. I was terrified. I was immensely sad. But I don’t ever remember feeling angry. I never once asked “Why me?” or “Why her?” We were surrounded by other families facing the same challenge and I asked instead, “Why NOT me?” Life is not fair. Life hands out undeserved joy and undeserved sorrow – and there seems to be little rhyme or reason to it all.
So what have I learned? I could say I have learned how precious our children are. But I already knew this. My son has had near perfect health but he is as dear to me as my daughter.
I have learned that, in spite of our lectures, rules, curfews, and antiseptic hand-wipes, we can’t protect our children from all of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We can perhaps show them through our actions how to cope with whatever life throws at us. Libby is a survivor. She has survived not only her physical challenges, but the emotional traumas of a difficult adolescence and some choices made in her youth that had long-lasting consequences for her. But she has grown in grace and wisdom and I am immensely proud of my beautiful girl.