Monday, April 22, 2013

Please Standy By

Work is crazy busy, which is a good thing in this economy, so paying bills is taking priority at the moment. I'll have some new posts by the end of the week.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Northridge Earthquake, Pt. II

As evening wore on, it was time for some decisions. Wife was safe with her parents, and back in her happy place. No one was going to work or school anytime soon, as power and potable water supply were out of commission for the foreseeable future, indefinitely.

Having been, at that point, a Red Cross instructor and volunteer, routinely working events with hundreds to thousands of people, the best use of my time was going to be heading in, to see where they needed me most, which I did. I loaded my normal event jump bags, along with a Colt .45, under the heading of "just in case".

I would do so again, but you need to understand it was - in hindsight - the most worthless addition I could have selected. I know this will upset the curmudgeon legions of Jeff Cooper and Bert Gummer acolytes out there, but rather than being a theoretical understanding, mine has the quaint virtue of having seen trial amidst millions of victims, in multiple disasters besides this one. So pay attention.

Lesson Five:
In small, intermediate, and large disasters, where the rule of law prevails, most crooks/gangbangers/etc. are just as pants-wettingly scared $#!^less as you are, and just as worried about taking care of themselves, their families, and grandma as you are, and haven't yet organized to going shooting and looting.

Argue that as you will, I've been there and done that, so your "But what abouts...?" will not avail. Nota bene the key words "where rule of law prevails", and "yet", for the star pupils.

So I set out for HQ.
Which, predictably, was total chaos. You'd think the Red Cross, proudly tasked by Uncle Sam and Congress (just ask them) with being Large And In Charge in disasters, would have had the foresight to have, perhaps, a generator and store of fuel, for any HQ placed within the geographic limits of Earthquake Central Chapters. Sadly, but predictably, you'd be hopelessly disappointed to expect even the garden-variety level of forethought there. Fortunately, I and a number of cohorts had some contacts in the entertainment field, a group of circus performers who take generators with them on location everyfrickinwhere. Also heating and A/C, etc. So having made those contacts work, and with some homeowner and contractor-grade additions, there was power, light, and climate control. Ma Bell's POTS phones worked as advertised, whereas cell phones were largely a fantasy, so that was that. And the one part of ARC Disaster Services that hummed like a Swiss watch was the radio geeks office, with any number of comm links on radio up and running, and coordination with civil authorities. Geeks 1, Chaos 0.

It was determined that the best place for me was to handle medical response at the shelter set up in the main park in nearby San Fernando, so just at dusk, off I went.

As previously noted, every intersection with dead lights was an instant 4-way stop, without so instructing a soul. As I proceeded up the main drag of Sepulveda Blvd., I was witness to a peculiar phenomenon. Pulled up herringbone-style onto the grassy central median, for 15 miles in both directions, were cars from the surrounding apartment complexes, and entire families establishing tent cities in the middle of an 8-lane boulevard.

But why?
a) Most of the families were hispanic generally, and of Mexican heritage specifically.
b) Thus most had relatives (or been there themselves) who experienced, suffered, and perhaps were casualties in the then-recent Mexico City earthquake.
c) Mexico has some of the most modern earthquake building codes on the planet. Which, for a small mordida, the local building inspector will happily sign off on after overlooking the lack of certain annoyingly expensive items, such as rebar, in concrete structures.
d) Thus, the Mexican experience in earthquakes is, everything falls down on your head.
Hence their haste to establish digs out in the middle of the street, away from those deathtrap buildings. QED.

And oh, BTW, San Fernando was a small satellite independent city, surrounding the original Mission San Fernando of the late 1700s, and was about 90+% hispanic, IIRC. (I defer to actual census data.)

So after travelling the Homeless Highway, I arrived at the rec center in the midst of a large park. My personal cluelessness was brief, but notable as demonstrated by the following exchange. The only place to park was in a handicapped spot. I was dressed in uniform white shirt, black dress pants, and with foot-square ARC Xs in about three places, and carrying a stethoscope and aid bags. In front of the spot was a uniformed motorcycle officer of the San Fernando PD. As I pulled in and got out, I asked if there would be any problem parking in the handicapped spot, because I didn't want to get towed. Whereupon Officer Areyoukiddingme motioned to the surrounding park grounds. Upon which I saw some hundreds of cars and trucks parked all over the grassy fields, as far as the eye could penetrate in the gathering darkness. "Relax. I don't think anyone's getting any parking tickets tonight, doc." Well, duh, dorkbrains, I realized a bit belatedly.

I made my way into the shelter, and found the shelter manager. ARC manages shelters adequately, but generally in the greater L.A. area was used to accommodating perhaps an entire building's worth of people after a fire, usually in local motels with vouchers. Dealing with several millions was a bit more than they were up for. So he happily handed me the setting up of medical care for his minions, and use of the only alcove that would remain lighted 24/7 to place it in.

"We've got almost 1000 people inside the gym on cots, and the surrounding park estimate is 5 or more times that much. There's fast food wagons around back giving out hot food as long as you like McDonalds, and we've got plenty of bottled water to hand out around front. The gym goes dark at 10PM. But we have to turn the lights on every time there's an aftershock, because everyone bolts for the exits. We've had some injuries from that when they trample each other trying to get out. Let me know if you need anything, I've got to get back and call in to the main office for tomorrow's plans and needs."

And that was it. I, EMT and student nurse, was now Chief Medical Officer for upwards of 6000 people. I had one converted LAFD ambulance that had about half the medical supplies our group had begged, borrowed, or cajoled, and used for every normal event for some years. I also had two other medics, guys I'd worked with for the previous 3 years, and I'm not bragging to say they were shit-hot medics, easily the equal of anyone the city fire department could have sent, and better in many way, because we dealt with all the everyday stuff, not just the trauma. I also had the local CNN crew, because when the lights went out, we were in the only place they could run lights without waking up 1000 sleeping shelterees.

Once word got out that we had first aid services, it was on. The three of us triaged, sorted through, treated, bandaged, and released dozens upon dozens of people. And also saw hundreds looking for all sorts of everyday things we did (and didn't) have. Some of our stuff was getting critical, including something as pedestrian but vital, in terms of public health, as baby diapers.

And then, a miracle happens. Little hispanic guy in shirtsleeves comes in. With 5 guys in suits, and 15 uniformed cops behind him. Turns out, he's the mayor of San Fernando, God bless him.

"How are you guys doing?" he asks. Fine, say I. "Do you need anything? Anything at all?" he asks.

I let him know about the baby diapers, and a couple of other things.

He turns, literally snaps a finger, and says, "Dave, take care of these guys. Get them whatever they need." One suit, a police lieutenant, and two uniformed officers peel off, as the rest of the entourage continue into the shelter.

Suit and lieutenant confab after our requests. They tell us they have a drugstore up the street where we can probably get what we need, and now we have three police escorts. One of the other medics volunteers to go with them to the nearby drugstore immediately; problem handled.

He returns an hour later with the ambulance packed to the roof with medical and comfort items. The local drugstore mgr. was at the store when our lieutenant, two officers, and ARC van roll up. When they tell him what we need, and offer Red Cross vouchers, he says "Take everything. The store is a total loss, and I'll be pushing it all into trash dumpsters by the end of the week. You can have all you want, and come back for more." So my guy and two policemen push and load three shopping carts overflowing full, fill the rig, and make a second trip, before leaving the manager with that much less stuff to dispose of, or guard.

That, boys and girls, is how to run city hall. Thank you, Mayor Awesome, and SFPD.

While they're gone, I and the other medic have been spending our time doing, frankly, minor surgery. Because as soon as the shaking stopped that morning, every mom and dad ran across floors strewn with china, glass, etc., to find out if the kids were alright. And consequently had half the kitchen floor debris embedded in their bare feet. Usually finding the kids sound asleep in their beds.

Lesson Six:
When SHTF, put your boots on FIRST. Half dressed is half-assed.

And the local hospitals, obviously, are power and waterless for the most part, and what few have survived and have power (though no water but bottled) have closed to all but critical cases, which glass in the feet is not. So we spend the night painstakingly plucking and prying bits of glass, china, bric-a-brac, metal, wood furniture, toy car wheels, and the like, out of hundreds of moms' and dads' feet, cleaning them with betadine and BZK, bandaging them, and repeating the process until everything we can see is removed. And changing bandages daily until things heal. Also splinting broken fingers, feet, arms, etc., from people running through the house and playing dodgeball with dressers, refrigerators, bookshelves, TVs, and so on, and coming in second place. Along with a hundred other complaints, some that would have been in the local ER, and some fresh because of the disaster. And if I do say so, we did a damn fine job of it.

Lesson Seven:
There won't be an ER in a disaster. Build a serious kit, and get actual training, and real hands-on practice, long before you need it. Because need it you will.

Then, there were the hourly media reports. I spent the better part of the night chatting with one of the L.A. local CNN on-camera guys. He was outside the most affected area, but he and his guys were just as shaken up as everyone, including me, was. But every hour, they'd be ready to go live in front of our little aid station, and update the families far, far away that we all weren't dead.

I give a lot of well-deserved $#!^ to The Media. But that doesn't, for the most part, go to the men and women on-scene, or the (mostly) guys who're pointing the camera, and running the assorted geekery in the broadcast van. They're working for a living, doing a sometimes dangerous, generally necessary, and rarely heart-rending job, rather than spending their nights safe and sound with their families, and not for vast sums of money nor glory. Some of them are jackasses, but most of them are just doing their jobs, and usually doing them well. This crew was.

Some friends afterwards let me know they had seen me on TV while they were far away and trying to get back to SoCal, which to them signified just how terrible things were if I was anywhere near being in front of a camera. Thanks, guys, love ya.

Lesson Eight:
If the opportunity arises, work with the media. If you give them good information, they can put out good information. Don't shoot yourself in the foot, as long as they're not trying to load the gun for you.

Lastly, as the night wore on, there were multiple, even dozens, of aftershocks. Which sent everyone, or half of them, running and screaming to the exits. The main function of the shelter management crew was to immediately turn on the lights, and corral the impending stampedes, over and over again. Which they did, and avoided almost all the injuries of the panic-stricken idjits doing the stampeding.

And BTW, my takeaway to my instructor/AKA Fearless Leader of our happy little band of community first-aiders at the time was
a) thanks for preparing us really really well to cope with catastrophes like this, and
b) you forgot to mention that, being in the middle of Ground Zero, WE will be just as crap-your-pants panicked, stressed, and worried as everyone else. Even if we don't show it.

Lesson Nine:
You WILL be just as crap-your-pants panicked, stressed, and worried as everyone else. Keep it to yourself, deal with it, and carry on. Don't show it. Panic is contagious; so is competence and calmness.

Because, as expected, I found the best way to deal with all that, was to focus on solving other people's problems, rather than dwelling on my own.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Northridge Earthquake, Pt. I

I offer the following to illuminate your preparations for disasters generally, and earthquakes specifically, having some wee experience with both.

The San Fernando Earthquake of 1971 was comparatively minor: a 6.6 monster that made it possible to surf the land waves in the back yard. Yes, really.  And then spend the day at school playing in a nearby park, because my school was downstream of the cracked earthen dam nearest the epicenter, and the authorities didn't want us swimming around if it failed. Once that was drained, no big deal, except for the occupants of a couple of substandard hospitals now about 5 feet tall, or the two guys tragically 6 feet too far under an overpass that landed on the cab of their now 3-inch tall F150 pickup cab. It also had the good grace to hit in the early morning, after 6AM.

Northridge was a tad more troublesome. First of all, it was a 7.0 (later, nota bene, politically downgraded on the rather elastic scale to a 6.9, thus magically avoiding a host of insurance company provisions for private and federal disaster insurers for earthquakes of 7.0 or larger).

But the quake was actually in Reseda, or rather, several miles under Reseda, the next closest suburb to the south of Northridge, located just about smack in the middle of the heavily populated San Fernando Valley. And, as it happened, about 3 miles from where I was sleeping.

The popular saying at the time was, any day that starts at 4:31AM, probably isn't going to get any better. So now, recollections, by the numbers.

I lived on the third of 4 floors, in a modest 2-bedroom apartment, about a block from where I'd lived from 0-21 years of age. The ground floor was under-building parking, and then three floors of apartments around a central courtyard. So my residence was the architectural equivalent of the middle square on the Hollywood Squares.

First came a gentle shove, like someone shoving the bed to wake you up. Which it did. Followed immediately afterward by the shaking.

Again, having lived lifelong in L.A. and SoCal, like most of my California native peers, and any number of long-term transplants, we're aficionados about earthquakes. We've all been through the back and forth rocking that feels like the sway of a train car you're riding on, and we can tell with pretty good guesstimates whether it's a 3, a 4, a 5, or something bigger but far away. Things jiggle, rattle, sway, and such, it lasts 5-20 seconds, and it stops. The longer it lasts, the bigger it was, and the further away it probably was, or you wouldn't be feeling it. These shakes only scare the newbs. Boo frickin' hoo for them.

That wasn't the experience of this one, very nearby, and much larger than anything similar for a century or more. Bearing in mind my location in the central square of the tic-tac-toe board of my side of the apartment complex, this shaking wasn't the standing on a skateboard sway I'd grown used to over 3 decades of experience.

To properly visualize this, imagine the Jolly Green Giant had grabbed opposing corners (like NW and SE, etc.) of the entire building, and was alternately slamming one after the other into the ground, as hard as he could. While simultaneously, something grabbed ahold of your private parts, and was slamming your @$$ down into the floor like they were churning butter, WHAM!WHAM!WHAM!WHAM!-style. That's what sitting on top of this felt like.

As if this change in experiences wasn't enough to get one's attention, this particular part of the exercise didn't settle down. It got worse. And continued. And continued. And continued. For at least a full 45 seconds. Bounce on a trampoline for 45 seconds sometime, as you time it. Now try it without the net and springs. That's the actual earthquake.

You have time to notice things. The fact that you're butt-naked sitting in a bed, and the mattress still isn't enough padding. The fact that your then-spouse is clinging ahold of you hard enough to leave marks on your neck and shoulders for days afterward. The fact that all the power is out, but the brilliant blue explosions outside as thousands of pole-mounted transformers explode from the short-circuiting going on.

The curiosity about whether you're going to die when the entire building pancakes and crushes you under tons of debris, or if the outside wall falls away, and you get bounced out to the street 50 feet below. Not whether, just which one. You notice the sounds of everything you own in the kitchen shattering as they get shaken off of shelves like a terrier snapping a rat around. And the same sounds as this is happening in apartments beside, above, below, and cattycorner to yours. The smells as each bottle of food item splatters on the tile floor. "There goes the sesame oil. That smells like the teriyaki. Now I'm smelling Worcestershire sauce." and so on.

So Lesson One is simple, and rather Zen/Bushido:
Accept that you're going to die, get over it, and concentrate on what to do between now and that finality.

Because eventually, either you will, or, in this instance, after a lifetime of getting rocked, it stops.

Followed by what would be merciful silence, except for one damned inescapable urban cacophony: the sound of every last car alarm for 50 miles going off at the same time.
First thought: "Hey, @$$holes, turn your g**d***** car alarms off, because we've got some serious $#!^ to deal with here."

My first plan was to find the flashlight, which I do. Spouse elects to spend a few moments totally losing her $#!^, apparently because to her way of thinking, that's the most productive thing to spend time on. Corporate MBA executive bigdeal thinking apparently can't process the very ground you walk on trying to kill you with as much emotion as stepping on an ant.

I find a flashlight, survey the room, decide it looks like hell, but there's no massive cracks. Find another flashlight and hand it to her.

"Honey? Get. Dressed. Now. Got it?"

She sobs out an "okay" and starts fumbling around. I am too, but mainly because I know where I put my stuff, only where it was and where it is now have had an intermission of 45 seconds in a large spin dryer of fate. I manage to get a full set of clothes on, and find both sets of car keys. A quick look outside the bedroom shows the kitchen looks like Baghdad after a bombing run. I tell the missus I'm going out to go move the cars out from under the building, and that she should start finding anything important she needs to take, in case we have to evacuate. I notice the living room seems to be an inch lower than the kitchen and dining room, and the spare room where my computer and bookshelves live is now an Impressionist piece entitled "Handgrenade In A Library". I head out the front door, and around the walkway to the stairs, all, fortunately still attached to the building.

As I descend the stairs, just as I'm between the 1st floor and the parking level, the first aftershock hits. It's a 6.0. Emotionally and physiologically wrung out of anything left, as I'm caroming back and forth between the walls mid-flight on the last run of stairs, I offer a prayer out loud:
"Look God, either kill me, or quit screwing around, because I've got things to do."

Apparently God either has a sense of humor, or it's nothing personal, because being far less ferocious than the main quake, the aftershock ends, and I continue into the darkened structure. The first good sign is that I've not only not been crushed in the stairwell, but that three floors of apartment plumbing aren't leaking all over the parking area. With no power, I wonder how the metal gate is going to get opened, but as I get there, someone has gotten there ahead of me, and pushed it open by hand. Yay, Random Neighbor. So I move first one car, then the other, to the street outside, across from my building, because there's nothing on that side to fall on the cars besides leaves from maple trees, and poop from terrified squirrels. Then I head back in and upstairs.

Wife is somewhat better off now, and dressed. We (okay, I) had previously loaded up 4 moving boxes, each with a week's canned food items, and a couple more with lights and propane for cooking and seeing in case of emergency. I decide this might be an emergency, and organize the 6V camp lamps and turn them on, and set them up around the shambles we now call home.

Wife loads up her work essentials, and clothes, and important papers, and her scrapbook of photos, and starts making trips to the car. I collate the arsenal and medical stuff, and leave it inside the door. Then I notice folks around the complex running around like headless chickens getting organized. I take my medical bag, and start knocking on doors to see if anyone needs help, first on my floor, then the one above, and finally the one below. Everyone is shaken up, but no one is jacked up. I let them know the garage is open, and they might want to move their cars out while they can, in case of further quakes or building problems.

Getting back to my place, wife has about finished loading stuff in her car. I go outside and look around, at the marvel of an entire valley of several million people, all in the dark, and relatively quiet. Being January in SoCal, it's crisp but not freezing, and the forecast is for a sunny, bright day. Thank God. And I look down, and see the landlady, she and her husband very recent arrivals from Back East, in her robe and slippers, checking out the building with a candle on a candlestick holder, like some Dickensian character.

I immediately yell down to her that if there are any gas leaks around, she's now a human leak detector, and might want to put out the damned candle. She nods at me with Bambi-In-The-Headlights catatonia, and continues on, candle blazing away.

Lesson Two:
In a disaster, stupid people will get you killed.

I also know that most problems in earthquakes are caused by fires afterwards, and the building manager is clearly too shellshocked, or stupid, to live. And highly likely to burn my house down along with hers due to her lack of common sense. So I dig out a helpful universal emergency wrench, and head down to the gas meters at the street level.

I find a row of 30 or so meters, locate mine, and shut off the gas. Without electricity, the spiffy high-tech range with no pilot light can't start anyways, and opening the gas line later on is simple enough.

The  building manager/husband of Landlady Bambi appears, and asks me what I'm doing. After explaining the facts of life to him, he decides we should shut all the meters off. With his official approval, I now spin all the meters off. If our building does burn down, it won't be because some idjit blew the place up with leaking gas. Using candles for illumination is another kettle of fish, so it's time to beat feet for the moment.

Wife and I spend the next hour until daylight wrangling a picnic cooler, transferring the perishable food into it, gathering both our earthquake stash and as much undamaged canned goods as we can, and transferring that, stored water, clean clothes, my arsenal, and the medical stuff into our cars.

Lesson Three:
Providing yourself the means to make other life plans beats hell out of trying to do it on the fly, on the day.

Landlines are dead, and this is pre-cell phone, unless you're rich, so calling anyone is a wasted effort. At daylight, we lock the place up, and convoy the 3 miles over to her parents' house.

Lesson Four:
Despite driving like jackasses most days, when the power goes out, everyone realizes in about 0.1 seconds that every intersection is now a full 4-way stop, without anyone telling them, or any police presence whatsoever, and people get all kinds of polite, because they now know that their car is life, and can't afford to risk losing it in stupid fender-benders.

The in-laws are in similar shape, scooping up shattered bric-a-brac, except in a neighborhood of houses. Her dad has a TV set up running out of their camper, and the neighborhood has already got a couple of BBQs fired up for a community breakfast, which will be followed by a community lunch and dinner, to use up all the meat, eggs, dairy, etc. before it spoils.

So now, listening to radio and TV news coverage, we learn the location and magnitude of the disaster amidst which we just embarked upon living.

To be continued...

Friday, April 5, 2013

Fortunate Son

Some people like to piss and moan about the fact that few, if any, sons of the perfumed princes who rule over us send their own sons off to war.

In case seeing how Senator Al Gore's kid turned out after Harvard wasn't enough of a proof for you*, I offer the following tale, and humbly suggest that the dearth of congressional progeny in the services is one of the greatest blessings that could befall the nation.

As my sophomore year wound down, I heard tell from an acquaintance of an incredible and unbelievable thing:
The Army, in return for absolutely no commitment in return, would happily ship interested youngsters to summer camp for 6 weeks, let them shoot guns and such, and pay them for the privilege at the E5 rate. (Note to the Army leadership: If you dumbasses would bother to advertise this program, rather than leave folks - we're talking 20 year old geniuses here - to stumble over it, you'd have a waiting list to go, and your pick of whom to accept, and whom to throw back.)

So, after the 0.2 seconds it took to find a nearby school with a PMS to verify the truth of said tale, and get me started on the process, I was entered to the pipeline.

Six weeks in lovely Fort Knox, just after Stripes had been released, and while staying in the same ancient wooden barracks buildings, is almost too magical for words. Words like humidity, mosquitoes, thunderstorms, and a level of organizational blockheadedness that necessitated the literary efforts of people like Kafka, Joseph Heller, and Neil Simon to adequately convey.

But particularly, where this tale's topic is concerned, with the addition, midway through our training as potential sugar-coated killers, of one son of a high-ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee to our training platoon.

Our first clue should have been when he was dumped among us, after having seriously effed with the career of another SNCO running his original platoon, evidently for not respecting the status of Son Of Congressman Dipshit.

An aside here. The Army, much like the Marines OCS, largely have the same pattern of SNCO Drill Sergeants overseeing ROTC Basic officer training. Both the Senior Drill Sergeant I had, as well as his two assistants, were models of professionalism, diligence, and exactitude. SFC Hillbilly was, in fact, an Appalachian whose primary MOS had been TC on M-60s and M1s, and I would have been happy to be the loader on his tank or his platoon leader with equal admiration for his skills and abilities. Ditto for the two SSGs assisting him.

So we were rather bewildered when someone was dumped into our platoon, and our drill sergeants rather hostile to the inclusion of someone whose presence had just screwed over the career of another good sergeant, merely for the sin of having to put up with a bucket of attitude from a snotty ROTC candidate (or "cadidiot", in common drill sgt. parlance) when they mainly only wanted to push their platoons of enlisted men through, finish their tour, and get back to driving tanks. I could understand the sentiment.

But then we met Candidate Clusterfuck.

Where, o where, to begin.

He arrived three weeks into our six week tour of duty at Camp Snoopy. It was an ever-so-slightly transmogrified version of BCT for enlisted men and OCS for officers. By which, one might understand, that in three weeks of instruction by our tender loving sergeants, we could march ourselves , under student command, from Point A to point B without causing howls of laughter from enlisted men's platoons, or getting run over by traffic, or various other sins against good order and discipline. We could dress ourselves, clean a barracks, make a bunk, field strip weapons, etc. Or, at least, 75 of us could. Out of 76. No points for guessing to which side of that divide Candidate Clusterfuck belonged.

Okay, so he's a slow learner. What can we expect, daddy is a multi-term congressman from some centrally located state. The apple clearly hasn't fallen far from the tree.

And it's got to be tough to get plopped into a new platoon halfway through, and make friends. We've all been together since getting haircuts and screamed at since day one, so we've all sort of bonded. But Clusterfuck has that rare gift: if he picked up a cat, at night, in a dark room, he'd pet it backwards out of reflex. Because he rubs everyone the wrong way.

And icing on his personal cake, one day we get mail call. I from friends, Clusterfuck, on official stationary, from Congressman Daddy. I try not to read over his shoulder, but I can't help it. Clusterfuck's letter is typed and double-spaced, and I have 20/15 vision, and I'm looking at him moving his lips to read a letter that sounds to all accounts like the way I was addressed by my parents. When I was 5 years old, not 20. How Congressman Daddy's staff, who typed the dictated letter, kept from shooting beverages out their nostrils while typing it is a mystery to me. It literally is baby-talk, written to someone almost old enough to buy liquor.

And then we reach the event of the Leadership Course. A series of tests, where the platoon leadership is rotated, and we're evaluated individually and as a group, on problem solving both abstractly and concretely.

Rotated to platoon leader, the reason for Candidate Clusterfuck's babytalk letter became apparent. He not only has trouble dressing himself, he apparently has reached the cusp of his third year at college,without any higher brain function whatsoever. I don't recall the exact test and conditions, but it was something like crossing a 12 foot "minefield" with two 8 foot planks, 10 feet of rope, an ammo can, and an overhanging bar.

All I recall was that after Clusterfuck getting flustered, and screaming incoherently, our monitor stopped us 20 minutes into the 30 minute problem just before we became the first group in history to navigate across the chasm by using the rope to tie the platoon leader up, launch him across the chasm into the minefield with the first plank on the ammo can using it as a teeter totter and having the 5 biggest candidates jump on the other end, then complete the transit by placing the second plank on top of his now lifeless body after the inevitable imaginary detonation, and have the rest of the platoon walk across it. Swear to Buddha, we'd already mutinied, tied him up, and were about to execute the launch when we were interrupted.

(To be fair, the original plan was to tie the rope to the overhanging bar, tie the other end to his neck, swing people across the minefield chasm, and use the planks to bat him back and forth so the platoon could grab ahold of his feet for the swing across. But no one knew how to tie a Hangman's noose, so we went with Plan B.)

I'm pretty sure on peer evals, Clusterfuck was in the bottom 5 in the class. Of 80 or so.

I can only hope the Army never sent him to Advanced ROTC, and subsequently commissioned him. But I can tell you that if they did, he was fragged by his own troops.

So please believe me when I tell you that having congressmen and senators send their offspring into the military isn't a good thing, pretty much ever.

*(Personally, I think had we gotten his roommate instead, it'd have been a net win all around. I'd much rather have served with ranch owner's kid 2d Lt. Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, than with Senator's son 2d Lt. Al Gore Jr. from Tennessee, any day of the week.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Economics Of Mediocrity

Every one of us can name some actor, or a list of them, who are "overnight success stories".

And we're almost exactly 100% wrong.

Everybody you ever saw, or liked, and who suddenly appeared on your "moviestar" radar "out of nowhere" has, in all likelihood, been pounding pavement, busting their chops, and paying their dues, for between 5 and 20 years when we first notice them.

One of the beauties of things like IMDb, and other sites, is now we can see this is so.

But even that source, worth every penny you pay for it, has enormous gaps in what it lists, and what it omits (ask me how I know this). So you can also take it as gospel that there are probably 2-5 times as many things not listed on it that somebody has done that never see the light of day on the Internet, in memoirs, or anywhere else. This is true whether we're talking about a megastar, or the cameraman, or the guy who puts the plants in front of the grafitti so that what you see on screen is always Perfectville, instead of Poopville.

Consequently, I, a lot of crew members, and some top-notch actors were all working on some from-hunger piece of crotch-rot production which, nevertheless, helped all of us pay our bills and keep a roof over our heads, even if you all didn't think it was as nifty as the producer and 40 executives somewhere thought it would be. (And just between us, you were absolutely right.)

But those of us in the circus do what we have to, sometimes with the same fatalism of the indomitable Russian peasantry under Soviet communism:
"We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

You learn pretty rapidly what kind of a deal you've latched onto. It's tough to make a tuna casserole lunch look like salmon and swordfish, so the secret's usually out by the first meal break.

But you never know what could happen; it could be a fabulous success, or you might meet the person who moves you to the top tier, or one of the wheels may remember you diligently working on this piece of junk, and call you when they hit the big time, so you soldier on until its over.

Unless you're here because you've got one foot on your Winnebago on your way to retirement, but you'll still take a buck if it's offered.

Like, on this little gem, our pyrotechnic effects wizard. I'll call him John, because it isn't his name.

John was a helluva nice guy, first of all. Not a cross word for anybody, in general. And he knew his stuff, more or less. In fact, John had probably forgotten more about blowing things up and making a bright flash than most guys knew.

Which, unfortunately, was exactly the problem. John had forgotten it. But he was still doing it. And some of us were close enough to take pause.

Mind you, John passed the ultimate test of EFX guys: he had all his fingers, toes, and eyes. When you meet one who doesn't, it's kind of like taking shop class from a guy with a prosthetic hand and three fingers total. At the least, it gets your attention.

But in honesty, John was about half blind and half deaf. Not that that's entirely bad, on some sets, because it saves a lot of trouble.

Our little production wasn't totally bare bones cheap. But when you see electrical guys picking up discarded clothespins for lighting gels, because there's no budget for more, you know you aren't making Gone With the Wind. And every day, everyone was having to stretch things, make do, and pinch pennies until they screamed.

As things wore on, and we witnessed a few close calls, I began to wonder if John was maybe just feeling depressed, and planning to take us all with him before he blew himself up in a final blaze of glory. But eventually, the real culprit turned out to be a budget that wasn't bare bones, they were actually missing some bones too.

The final proof came during a discussion near John's truck about the next day's big finale. I pay attention to this stuff, because when you're prepared, nothing happens. When you take everyone's professionalism for granted, you end up in the middle of pandemonium on Twilight Zone II. Which isn't where anyone wants to find themselves.

So as a little planning session was underway, I was kind of surprised to see John looking more than a trifle disatisfied with what was expected.

His confirmatory cry was good enough to get written on the wall of another truck, in black Sharpie:
"Jeezus, these guys take the cake! They not only want you to put 10 pounds of $#!^ in a 5 pound bag; then they want you to sell it to 'em for half price!!"

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Technology Fail

As my last posts demonstrates, all this technology $#!^* can be double-edged sword.
Because just as the internet can deliver to me faraway places and persons at the speed of electrons, it can also take people who, 50 years ago, could have died after being eaten by wild pigs without affecting my life one whit, whereas now, the jackass in your neighborhood 10 time zones away can now also be a PITA in my electronic one now.

Take one aspect of my employment. As one might ascertain, I work occasionally in that section of the organized circus of human freaks called the movie and television production biz. (Don't tell my mom, she thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.) Once upon a time, such work made the ultra high tech of a pager a necessity, so that one was reachable to arrange employment. But one might be driving, or in an area with no phones, or even working on a show out of range of the page itself, so people in the biz understood, paged you, and waited until you might have had a chance to reach a phone to call in and take the job before concluding you weren't the guy.

Then, some asshole genius invented cellphones. So now there's not a public phone anywhere, for the first time since about 1900, but everyone's connected, 24/7/365 (void in huge swaths of flyover country, deep canyons, and toney restaurants with illegal Israeli cellphone jammers). Which has occasioned what I refer to as The Assbag Page.

Instead of calling a person for a job, getting a no, or waiting a decent interval, someone trying to fill a call pages 5, 10, or 30 people simultaneously for the same job. In an industry where folks may be in a dead zone, or on a stage where they can't turn their cell phones on, answer them, or have to wait until they have a break to walk 50 yards away to return the call. So when you get up, go to where you won't disrupt the $100,000/day production actually paying you right now, to return a call about prospective work, 90 seconds after the original page, and are told "Sorry, I already filled the call", you have just been paged by an Assbag.

There might be 1 in 100 times where you needed someone right this second, or it was midnight and you needed to arrange something last minute for 5 AM or something, but by and large, that's never the case. So there's no reason to send 50 people sprinting for their phones, and dashing for the exit, knowing you're just jerking 98% of them around, for a job that's 1, 2, or more days in the future. Unless you're an unmitigated dick who deserves to be kicked in the crotch with steel-toed boots until the explosion of colors in your head fades under a haze of unconsciousness. Just saying.

So maybe the best technology is one less than cutting edge.

Once upon a time, I had a problem, in that a number of vendors of recreational pharmaceutical products decided that the corner leading to my cul-de-sac was their new retail location brainstorm.

I tried calling the local constabulary, who were attentive and understanding, until I persisted in calling with no results, and a kindly detective informed me that they'd added my corner to their List Of Things To Do, but as they were currently swarming 2 such sites a day, and mine was now number 179 on their list, it would be approximately 3 months before they could swing by. (Which, in fairness, they did do, just about exactly 3 months later.)

Enter Captain Technology to the rescue.

The main problem wasn't the street corner vendors, it was the house across the street wherein resided their supplier. I ascertained this with a brief foray of neighborhood reconnaissance over a couple of nights, after observing the one house where the corner guys and the local girlfriends for hourly rental seemed to keep visiting with an unmistakable frequency and repetition, at all hours.

A friendly visit to the local building permit office and a polite request about the owner of a certain property got me a printout with the name and phone number of that owner. Suitably pissed, but savvy, I phoned the number the city had.

I never identified myself as a federal agent, being a college student at the time, because that's not only bad, it's also generally understood to be illegal. But by the well-placed use of the royal "we", and inclusion of words like "reports", "drug activity", and "asset forfeiture", it can be understood how someone might have honestly but mistakenly assumed that they were receiving official interest from a multi-lettered federal agency. You know what happens when people assume.

All the better that I had reached not the actual owner, but instead his rather royally still-pissed-at-him ex-wife. (Guys, if you're not getting the moral here, scroll back and start over.)
Who happily told me the actual owner's current address, phone number, the name of his multi-million dollar inventory antique business which might also need to be seized, and volunteered the identity of the probable renter as the ne'er-do-well no-goodnik nephew of the former Mister @$$hole. Why thanks ma'am, thanks for your support.

A second phonecall, this time to actual owner, at actual business, with the same keywords, but now armed with the probable culprit's name and identity, a couple of pointedly interested questions about where actual owner got the money for such a lucrative business, and the reports and suspicions about drug activity, once again without ever misstating or misrepresenting my identity or occupation, brought a flood of information, including culprit's telephone number, and earnest expressions that this disturbing development would be reveiwed ASAP by the property owner, first thing next Monday.

Which, under the circumstances, still seemed like three extra days of drug dealing too many to suit me.

But at this point in civilization, modems were like NASA satellites. High tech, but not very bright.

So now knowing the actual phone number of a guy clearly dealing drugs 24/7 at the house in question, I programmed my low-tech modem to auto-dial Drug Dealer's phone. For 2 seconds. Then hang up. Then auto-dial. Then hang up. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Being before pagers OR cellphones, or even reverse dial, or caller ID, this could be seen as something that could understandably put quite a wrench in this particular monkey's business.

I can only assume it did. I started it running at 9 PM on a Friday evening. Dial, RING, click. Dial, RING, click. Dial, RING, click.

At 2:42 PM Saturday afternoon, more than 17 hours of non-stop speed-dialling later, I turned it off for 15 minutes.

Then called the number.

>Woman's voice<"HELLO!?!"

"Hi. You know, drug dealing is baaaaaaad. You should probably move out, and stop doing that. Right away."

"Why you! If we ever catch you, you miserable motherf***"- click.

Dial, RING, click. Dial, RING, click. Dial, RING, click.

At 1 AM Sunday, I stopped it again. For 20 minutes. Then called to see how business was going. (Although there had been a notable drop-off in foot traffic already.)

>Same woman< "HELLO!?!

"You mean you haven't moved out yet?"

"Hey, Dave, it's HIM again!! It's the sonofa"-click.

Dial, RING, click. Dial, RING, click. Dial, RING, click.

I turned it off again Monday at 8 AM.

When I got home from classes after lunch, a moving van was in their driveway, loading up their belongings.

No gunshots, no firebombings, no court costs. Sometimes, a little less technology is better than a little more.

So I'm thinking that makes me a Cyber-Luddite. I'm definitely in favor of making fire. But instead of sharks with frickin' laser beams, or orbital satellites focusing sunlight through diamond arrays, I'm perfectly satisfied with using napalm to do it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Oh Dear

Despite our best efforts, and a generous supply of bon homme, we seem to have stepped on our tackle.

Subsequent to receiving a number of hits hereabouts from the "Get Off The X" forum* about one of my posts, I registered and logged in. Found the linking post, and thanked the author for the kind words and linked attentions. (Because, ya know, posting stuff on these Intarwebz is such the avocation of the timid, shy, and retiring sort, and I really get depressed when anyone actually reads it. That's why I hide it here, on the Internet, accessible in every country but Yemen and North Korea.)

And in the course of looking the place over, and sociably joining in where I felt it was warranted, I seem to have unintentionally stepped in some dear little heart's personal hamster chow, and managed to upset the hobgoblins of his personal sense of propriety.

It was an honest mistake: I was commenting on a post addressed To Whom It May Concern (I know, I'm such an @$$hole to butt in like that) soliciting opinions, and compounding my error, actually gave one.

WTF was I thinking?!?

And of course, having received kind words and good response from one forum member elsewhere, expected that perhaps such rather commonly courteous behavior would be universal.

(Okay, that last was inexcusably stupid, really, and no crocodile tears. Shame on me.)

And of course, the ever-helpful Bridge Trolls of the Internet, or in this case, the Boss Troll, helpfully jumped up and down, ran around the room, and like most Pomeranians who think they're a Pyrenees, promptly pissed all over himself, the topic, and everything within range of his bladder, including yours truly, to ever so helpfully mark his territory.

And then, in the manner of a true Ubergeek checkers tournament, it was ON, bitchez.
(Never try to trump someone who donates a pint of Smartass twice a month at the Red Cross.)

After about the 4th back and forth thereabouts, in which the Silverback Pomeranian pissed on himself yet again, in case anyone bereft of nasal receptors missed the scent of his wet panties thus far, another uninvolved kind soul had the decency to send a PM, and not only wish me congratulations for my prior efforts, but let me know that certain individuals there, like on other boards, seem to feel a special mission to "jump in" newcomers, especially by throwing out the toilet-paper roll length of their Intarwebz "Offishul Expert" creds (particularly when bluff, bluster, blowhardry, and b.s., combined with an inability to reason logically or respond civilly aren't enough to prove their inate superiority to us lesser dumbass mortals.)

My thanks to the person for that backstage whisper.

But in fairness, when someone gets in such a hissyfit, and aren't nearly as brilliant as they imagine in their own minds, I like to let my inner child out for a bit, if only to tune up my paddleball skills.
Juvenile? Pointless? O Hell yes. But entertaining on a 3-day weekend, and not as undignified as getting a magnifying glass and looking for an anthill.

But it's a workday now, and time to remind myself of the lovely sentiment I once received, underneath a picture of a "special" child, arms and legs caught in mid-flail, tongue pointed sideways, and finishline tape breaking at the moment of the picture across his numbered chest, captioned thusly:

              Internet Arguments
                       Are like competing in the Special Olympics.
          Even when you win, you've only beaten a bunch of retards.

> Sigh<
Yeah. Point noted.

*(Which forum, despite the one notable exception, seems to be a lot of decent folks.)

Best Vehicles for SHTF

Car & Driver occasionally tries to chime in with their ideas. Which is usually proof they couldn’t find their asses with both hands, a map, and a rearview mirror.

A proper list will have a range of fuels, sizes, and capabilities. Mine certainly does all that.

Here’s the list. Stand back.

1. M1 Abrams MBT
You can park it anywhere. You can drive it anywhere. Sure, diesel may be problematic. But any tank which makes Guderian’s WW2 Wehrmacht panzerblitz look like a bunch of underachieving pussies, eats whole armies for breakfast, and seats 4, oughtn’t be passed up lightly. Woof!

2. M977 series HEMTT
With a high cab, wheels the size of small RVs, and a sizzling cornering radius of only 100 feet, this baby is a dream to handle. And in a pinch, it runs on JP-4.
Any vehicle that makes a Mack truck look feminine needs to be on this list.

3. USMC LAV 8x8
Carries a squad in comfort at up to 80MPH, and mounts damn near anything you care to think of, from the .50BMG to TOW missiles, for those quick trips to the 7-11 in downtown Fallujah.
Let some psycho bitch at the local mall try to snag your parking spot, and pretend she doesn’t see you driving your LAV, and see who has the space after you turn her urban yuppiemobile into smoking modern sculpture.
Even the Army figured out (20 years late) that this thing is a bitchin’ ride.

4. FAV (Fast Attack Vehicle)
4WD. 90MPH. Front and rear facing MGs. Three man seating, and room for 2 casualties, or a ton o’ crap in the side baskets. US Navy SEAL tested and approved.
And even our own tanks can’t shoot the damn things out at the NTC, because they move across the field of vision faster than the turrets can traverse.
If Lawrence of Arabia had possessed 2 dozen of these little terrors and a couple of fuel trucks, Saudi Arabia’s capital city would be called Istanbul.

5. Colonial Marine Corps Squad Drop Vehicle
Whether you’re going on a bug hunt, or just saving some scared colonists, this baby’ll handle 5g space drops, and haul ass from the cargo ramp of the orbiter on the hover, carrying you and your apocalypse commandos in plush comfort. The ride’s so smooth even Cpl. Hicks can take a nap on the ride down.
And it runs over acid-blooded aliens like a halftrack in a school playground.
The fold-down rotating laser cannon makes getting into those low-clearance parking garages, nuclear power plant cargo doors, or random caves a snap.
And it’s a cinch to drive, even for complete newbies. You know you want one.

6. Clydesdale
It can haul a wagon of salvaged beer after Doomsday, carry a fully-weighted knight in plate mail at ramming speed, and squash lesser animals and unfriendlies with a look and a snort. It has a low ground pressure, runs on local vegetation, and can carry more gear than you could fit in a Mini Cooper without even noticing.
And if you buy one of each sex, you can make more.
Try doing that with pink and blue Hummer2s.

7. EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle
Armor plating, modern comms, on-board armory, and cutting edge guns and missiles. Decent gas mileage. And it’s made in America. For those romantic Bavarian getaways, or a quick rescue mission to unfriendly countries. We knew the Russkies were pussies way back in 1982. This is the vehicle that proved it.

8. DeLorean, optioned out.
You’ll want the Flux capacitor, Mr. Fusion, and hover capability.
Apocalypse, schmocalypse! You can travel forward and backwards in time at will, and change things until you get it right. H.G. Wells, eat your heart out. If you’re going to make a time machine, why not go first class? And when this baby hits 88MPH, you’re going to see some serious shit!