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The Rainy Season: “a ticket to Afghanistan”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

In the days after 9/11 the home economics teacher at my military school in Korea had students baking cookies for snipers. That probably sounds strange. It felt surreal. Our small army post had brought in snipers from Seoul and placed them on the roofs of our housing units and school buildings. Just one of the many things I hadn’t prepared for in college. We also had military police riding school buses and patrolling our hallways. They carried M-16s loaded with live rounds. The MPs got a lot of cookies, too. Most of the classroom windows had to be covered with dark-colored bulletin board paper. Our military post was surrounded by a vertical city of three-and-a-half million people. We didn’t want student silhouettes lighting up the scopes for any Johnny Jihad snipers that might have found a perch high above our perimeter wall. Students weren’t allowed outside for recess either. Instead of the playground our students used the library and cafeteria—though not for reading and eating. Sometimes we’d march students up and down the stairwells just to burn off excess energy. Or to give mental health breaks to workers in the library and cafeteria. We also had to cancel after school sports and extra-curricular events.

My principal obviously wasn’t going to China.

Not anytime soon.

We had constant briefings from the military command. We were told to blend in and be vigilant, but no one told us how to do those things. Somewhere in Washington D.C. a PowerPoint was being tweaked. But we hadn’t seen it yet. Meanwhile, the media said “live your lives or the terrorists win” and most of us were on board with that. But we were also on board with the snipers hanging with us for a while. If that was a contradiction then so be it.

The military went to war for our country.

So did military spouses. So did military brats.

My principal had been with the Department of Defense for three decades. His name was Ray and he was a tall, imposing figure. His tendency to be abrupt was often mistaken for impatience. In fact he just didn’t like wasting time. There really is a difference. He was honest, quick and decisive when settling routine matters but he was deliberate and uncannily intuitive when counseling teachers or students. Ray had been an airman before he was an educator, and now he was leading military students and teachers in a crisis unlike any that our school system had ever faced.

“We have to be normal for our kids,” Ray said. “Nothing else will be. Not for a long time. They need homework, quizzes, essays and tests. They need structure and assurances. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway. We’re going to help each other. And we’re going to be successful.”

It was tense, and stressful—but we did our best. Not just for our students and the soldiers stationed in Korea with us, but for our country and military at large, our families and friends back in the states, and with heavy hearts we did our jobs in honor of our colleagues in New York and D.C. and western Pennsylvania who persevered daily in classrooms with circumstances far worse than ours. We did our best to move forward and be normal so our way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists. As athletic director, I thought moving forward and being normal meant our athletic teams should be competing. But it was a decision for the military command and for sure no one was going to ask for my opinion.

I began every day by asking Ray, “Any news on sports?”

He would answer, “Nothing.”

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That’s how it felt.

Then one Monday morning I asked, “Anything?”

Ray looked up from his desk and said a single word. “Shanghai.”

“What about Shanghai?”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Okay.”

Ray said, “I’m sending you instead.”

“To Shanghai?”

“You’re in here every day begging for something to do.”

“With sports.”

“I spoke with the superintendent. Sports and extra-curricular activities are going to resume next week.”

“Finally—”

He waved his hand to cut me off. “First you have to go to Seoul for updated force protection training. Then you have to brief our coaches and athletes on new procedures. Then sports can start up again.”

“Great—”

He waved again. “They’re faxing travel orders for you to fly to Seoul.”

“Okay—”

“After Seoul you’re going to Shanghai.”

“But—”

“I don’t want to go,” he said again. “I could feed you a line and say it’s an honor the superintendent chose to send you in my place. I won’t. He didn’t. I told him you would go because I thought it would force him to cancel Shanghai. But he agreed, so now you’re stuck. The good news is you’ll be back in time to get sports going again.”

“What am I going to do in Shanghai?”

He shrugged. “Buy some whiskey in duty-free.”

“I don’t drink.”

“It’s not for you.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Buy a suit. Wear it. Leave your hat at home. Smile. Nod. Give him whiskey and bow a lot.”

“Him” was the Chinese principal. He’d given Ray some expensive alcohol back in May. Ray gave me a few other particulars and I spent the rest of Monday teaching and adjusting lessons plans for my substitute. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday evening and got a room at the Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Army Garrison. The security briefing took place Wednesday morning at the DoDDS-Korea District Office, which was on the same post and within easy walking distance from the Dragon Hill.

Every DoDDS athletic director on the peninsula was in attendance.

The district safety and security officer gave the briefing. The SSO was a guy named Harkins. He was early forties with a high-ranking civilian position and a generous salary. Harkins was tall and wide, but fit. He had a high-and-tight military cut and no doubt his personal one-step plan for increased safety and security was to spend more time in the gym. I’d been in a few briefings with Harkins. He’d always been an outgoing, no-nonsense guy. But this morning his eyes were puffy and tired and his affect resembled a defeated warrior.

I gave a concerned look to a few colleagues and got a few shrugs in reply. The bottom line is we were all tired and stressed. None of us had a clue what would transpire over the next few months. Why should the SSO be any different?

Harkins said, “I have a PowerPoint. I’m not going to use it.”

Which would have been welcome news in different circumstances.

“I was a soldier. I fought in Desert Storm. We lost good soldiers, marines, airmen. But this war is different.” Harkins was really struggling. He paused a beat, and when he continued it was with an emotional plea. “Let’s not lose any of our kids. We can’t lose any of our kids.”

I understood why Harkins hadn’t used the PowerPoint.

This wasn’t “updated force protection training.” The only thing that had changed post-9/11 was Harkins had been much more insistent this time. Like cleaning up after lunch. Ultimatums on top of earlier ultimatums. Apparently our new plan was, “From now on you need to listen when we talk about safety and security because this time we really mean it.”

I shouldn’t be cynical.

It was a difficult time for everyone. Maybe it was even more difficult for Harkins. He was a tough, ex-soldier whose country was going to war—only he’d been tasked to fight with something other than bullets. Ground Zero was still burning. What Harkins really wanted was a ticket to Afghanistan.

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The Rainy Season: “like toughened, battle-tested men”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

The picture.

I was impossibly young. I look back now and barely recognize the gaunt figure with the hard face. He is a stranger with a clenched jaw, dark, swollen and hollow eyes … until I see that I am flanked on either side by Sami and On-nee.

Then I remember everything.

Will jogged across the field and congratulated me. We shook hands like toughened, battle-tested men. After which Will had cracked a smile, and then he congratulated me a second time with half-a-man-hug, like friends do when they are done pretending to be toughened and battle-tested.

Our quest for trophies and Far East had begun ingloriously three years earlier with a spectacular thrashing from Will’s team in my first-ever match as varsity soccer coach, but I had promised Ray this moment would come …

Far East. Japan.

… and now Ray sprinted onto the field, bursting with pride and emotion. He shook my shoulders and proclaimed, “We did it! We did it!” For emphasis he tossed in a few colorful expletives. My student-athletes—including Ray’s daughter—were in earshot. But as Ray would say, they’re military kids. They were already familiar with the vernacular.

Our boys and girls teams gathered for a celebratory picture. I can still feel the icy Gatorade. It rained down on Sami and me. It’s one of the few times I can remember hearing On-nee shriek in laughter. Sami had loved it. She thought it was the single, most amazing thing she had ever experienced. I had acted annoyed. But late that night I stood in the middle of the field, alone, long after everyone else had gone home. I thought about my team, and I relished the orange stains on my jacket and jeans. I felt tremendous pride, and so much love, and my whole body began to shake with joy and trepidation. Joy, for our great achievement; trepidation, for adding three weeks to our season.

Far East meant two additional weeks of training followed by a weeklong trip to Japan with more than forty military students—all during a time in which analysts offered daily assessments that mutilating American military families was at the top of al-Qaeda’s wish list.

On a good night, I was sleeping three to four hours. On a bad night, I was taking two to three migraine injections.

On the day before 9/11 I had weighed 165 lbs and ran twenty-five miles a week—but eight months later I weighed 147 lbs and ran thirty-five miles a week.

Only I wasn’t healthier.

In fact, it was the opposite. I rarely ate real food. My diet was Pepsi and Maalox. My health was deteriorating rapidly.

Fatigue.

Stress.

But I didn’t take any sick days. I didn’t complain. I didn’t make excuses. My students’ parents were at war. I got up each morning and worked harder.

The Sunday after we clinched a trip to Far East, I met Sami and her mom outside the Post Exchange. Julie was Sami’s mom, and I think she was the quintessential military spouse—confident, unflappable, and resilient no matter the crisis. In an evening gown she’d be elegant and flawless, but give her a gun and cammies and she could pull that off, too. Julie was tall, blond and athletic, and Aaron—Sami’s dad—had by all accounts won the lottery.

On that Sunday afternoon, Julie bought fifteen kids meals from Burger King and I bought a case of grape soda from the Exchange.

Sami asked me, “Where’s On-nee?”

My phone beeped before I could answer.

“Is that On-nee?”

I checked the incoming text and told Sami, “Someone should really buy you a phone. Yes, it’s On-nee. She’s going to meet us there.”

Julie said, “She’s not getting a phone. You driving or am I?”

“Actually, I was going to walk.”

“Me too, mom.”

Our military community had four posts—one was thirty minutes away, but the main gates for the other three formed a loose triangle. If you used back alleys—and Korea is the world capital, I think, for back alleys—then you could navigate between any two points within that triangle in less than ten minutes. A large apartment complex facetiously referred to as the DoDDS ghetto was inside that triangle. I lived in the ghetto, along with many other teachers. Also inside that triangle was a tiny two-story house with a narrow yard, rusted swing set, and a beat-up ajumma cart.

Julie shrugged. “Easier than finding a place to park.”

Sami raced ahead, toward the pedestrian gate that led off-post.

I told Sami, “Stay close.”

I carried the grape soda and half the Burger King bags. Julie carried the rest. A fast-minute later we reached the pedestrian gate.

I told Sami, “Hold up.”

Sami jogged in place and talked smack. “Hurry, old man.”

“Bench warmer,” I said back.

“Hey, that’s low.”

Korean soldiers and police officers manned the gate, along with a few American MPs. I paused a beat to look around anyway. Inside the perimeter wall was our safety zone, but outside the wall the “buddy system” was in effect—and the reason the “buddy system” was in effect is why I paused. The threat to Americans was very real.

I saw nothing unusual, so I told Sami, “Okay, stay close.”

Sami took off again, like a boisterous puppy freed from its leash.

Julie said, “This works better anyway. It gives us a chance to talk.”

“About what?”

“You know all about Sami’s incentives, of course.”

I nodded. “Sure.” Sami’s parents had made plans to travel to Japan for Far East—and they had also bought tickets for the 2002 World Cup, which was being played in Korea and Japan only a few days after Far East.

“All year we promised to take her to the World Cup. A once-in-a-lifetime chance, right? I mean it’s being played in our own backyard, practically. We told her maybe Far East. If she kept her grades up and did well in school. Well, she’s been spectacular. It’s her best year ever, and not just academically. She’s never fit in or belonged to anything so special. She’s never been this excited about school or anything else for that matter.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Iraq is next. You know?”

“That’s what everyone is saying.”

“I’m not just saying. It’s a fact. Aaron already got orders.”

“Orders? To where?”

“Sami and I are going back to Tampa. Aaron is going to Qatar to plan Persian Gulf The Sequel, coming to a desert near you in about a year’s time. Maybe less. Aaron says next March. It’s really not something I should joke about. It’s important, I know that, and no one needs to explain it to me. But Sami is going to be devastated. She’d be okay if it was only the World Cup, but it’s going to kill her to miss Far East.”

“You can’t stay until the end of the school year? Or go back separately?”

She shook her head, and her voice broke just a little. “Aaron is going to war. He needs us, and we need to be with him every day we can.”

“When do you leave?”

“The same week you go to Japan.”

We caught up to Sami at an intersection and she jogged in place again. “Why are you out of breath, old man?”

I wasn’t out of breath. Or old. I said, “Practice squad bench warmer.”

Sami popped me in the shoulder with a left jab and a right cross, and when the green man lit up she hit the crosswalk at a full-on sprint.

“She’s going to be devastated,” Julie said, again.

“When are you going to tell her?”

“I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow. Aaron thinks he can get us orders to Germany.”

“Germany? What for?”

“As we build-up to Iraq he’ll be in and out of Germany. We could see him maybe once a month. If we stay in Tampa then we won’t see him for a year or more. I should be grateful Aaron’s career is fast-tracked. Most spouses don’t have options.”

“I’m sorry.”

Up ahead was the front entrance to the market. Sami held up, but Julie called out, “You’re fine. Go ahead.” Sami raced headlong into the teeming market with its warren of dirty stalls and rancid smells.

I thought, Sami, wait … but Sami and her mom had visited the orphans every week for months. The market was safe enough. I said nothing.

Julie said, “You know about her friend Angel?”

“Sami talks about her all the time. Angel’s mom is pregnant.”

“Angel’s family is in Germany. Maybe God has a hand in all of it.”

Julie and I entered the market just as Sami jetted around a corner and into a narrow alley.

Julie said, “Sami tells you everything, doesn’t she?”

I gave her my best noncommittal shrug.

“Of course she does. So you already know that Angel’s family isn’t the happiest. I’ve been bitter lately to be stuck in Korea with Aaron off God-knows-where half the time—but Angel’s mom is in a worse situation. At least I’m not pregnant.”

Julie and I made it around the corner and into the narrow alley. Sami’s red hoodie was a blur in the distance. She broke left and out of sight into yet another alley.

“Sami tell you Aaron and I had a big fight?”

“No,” I lied.

“He’s already been to Qatar two or three times. I thought he was in Tampa.”

“I know it’s been tough,” I said, wishing she would change the topic, and suddenly feeling anxious about Sami being out of sight.

“Angel’s mom—”

Julie never finished her thought. We heard scuffling and a loud clatter in the next alley, and then a man began to shout angrily in Hangul.

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The Rainy Season: “the only truth that matters”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

In my mind I’d placed rings around the hotel. The high-end shopping, restaurants and other luxury hotels were in the first ring—Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and dozens of other brand names fit for Fifth Avenue. Not that downtown Jakarta would ever be confused with Manhattan, but persons with substantial means could certainly pass time in Jakarta without any major inconveniences. In the second ring were places like Chili’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, 7-Eleven, Circle K and Dunkin’ Donuts.

We’d left the first and second rings behind after five minutes of driving … in traffic.

In the third ring the streets were narrow and dark, almost sinister. People lit fires on sidewalks to burn trash or cook food, or both. There were steel barricades with heavy padlocks in front of every doorway, and they made every residence look like a prison. They probably felt that way, too. The motorbikes that weren’t playing Frogger on the streets were chained to the same barricades that fortified the houses. Half-naked kids were panhandling in traffic. The first ring glowed in the distance, lit up by consumerism that was brought to Jakarta courtesy of western cultures and Christian nations, and it influenced impoverished Muslims in the third ring, who wore Manchester United tee shirts with “Rooney” on the back, twisting further the attitudes and perceptions of those who were bent already toward radicalism.

Maybe we should build a McDonald’s on every corner and declare victory. Or did we try that already?

The traffic got worse and soon we were at a complete standstill. There were four or five local men in various states of undress standing in the road, but the only police officers in sight were sitting off to the side and seemingly unconcerned about the situation. The locals were ostensibly directing traffic to alleviate the jam, but it was pretty clear they were in fact causing it to further the panhandling efforts of the kids.

Indira said, “Soukpa, close your window.”

Soukpa had barely registered what Indira had said when a hand slammed loudly against the van. Soukpa cried out in surprise and nearly fell from her seat, but it was only a boy, maybe eight or nine years old.

The boy cried through the window in English, “I hungry!

Soukpa quickly reached into her tote bag.

Indira grabbed Soukpa’s arm. “No,” she said. “You must not give the boy money. You see the men? The boy work for the men. The men will take anything you give the boy.”

Soukpa was horrified. “Who give boy food?”

Will said, “It’s difficult to say no, but Indira’s right.”

Soukpa’s hand came out of the bag with a banana. She had no money to give the boy, but she was prepared to give away the food she had pinched from the breakfast buffet.

Indira shook her head sadly. “I am sorry.”

The boy banged his hand repeatedly on the side of the van. Soukpa was obviously torn, but she put the banana back into her bag. I’d never seen a face with such a pained expression. The boy just banged away, again and again, and his antics drew unwanted attention to our van from the people on the street, sidewalks, and other cars. He screamed, “I hungry! I hungry!” It was uncomfortable, to say the least. Indira spoke Bahasa to our driver, who then climbed out of the van and chased the boy away with a few harsh words.

“I am sorry,” Indira said again.

The city assaulted us with its hellacious cacophony, but inside the van it was eerily quiet.

Indira finally gave everyone a big smile, and then she asked, “How many Indonesian men does it take to direct traffic?” I didn’t say anything because I had no idea if she was being serious. No one else said anything either. Indira laughed and told us, “All of them. The women work and cook and clean and make babies and pray five times a day, but the men have nothing better to do.”

“How long are they going to keep us here?” I asked.

“You do not like my joke?”

“It’ll be funnier after they let us go.”

“They let us go soon, I think.”

The police officers finally stood up. They blew whistles and chased the men and kids from the street. Our van began moving again and a short moment later I saw firsthand how completely the filth and squalor of the third ring had enveloped the train station. Wallach had the right idea, avoiding this place. The van had barely slowed when a crowd of men descended on it, waving and motioning our driver to park in twenty different places.

Indira said, “How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?”

There was a chorus of “all of them,” and this time it probably would have been funny if not for the women, children and street vendors waiting for us in all twenty different places we were being directed. It was a relief when finally we parked and climbed out of the van, but immediately there were countless people staring at us—specifically at me, Will and Martin—and while most were simply curious, others were outright hostile. My ideal for blending in would be for no one to see or hear me, ever. Good luck with that. Not here, not in this scenario. Sometimes blending in means acute situational awareness and the right attitude. Act as if you belong. Which is why I approached the ticket office the same way I’d left the airport the other night: no big deal.

Being with Indira obviously helped. She made all our arrangements. On that account, Wallach had been right on target. The listed price was 7,000 rupiah per ticket. Indira haggled and finally agreed on 5,000 rupiah. Our group of sixteen would travel for less than ten dollars. Indira had knocked a buck-fifty off the total, which I found incredibly amusing at the time.

I don’t have a lot of experience with trains, but the “train station” picture I had in mind had been formed by Seoul Station and London Liverpool Street. My picture was off just a bit. Well, in truth, I wasn’t even on the right canvas. In Seoul and London the train stations have concourses with high-end shopping and fancy restaurants. The train station we departed from that morning had a dirty 7-Eleven with about half of its shelves stocked.

I bought a bottle of water and sat quietly on the platform.

There were only two tracks, but after a few minutes Indira realized we were sitting on the wrong side. We climbed an escalator that didn’t work, crossed over to the other side, and found benches dirtier than the ones we’d just left.

I decided to walk around the platform. It was elevated and I could see a long line of people standing outside a small grocer across the street from the station.

Indira walked over and said, “It is really sad.”

“What is?”

She pointed at a sign I hadn’t noticed: Western Union. “It is the same in every city in my country, a long line every morning to get money family member send from overseas. It comes from your country, Dubai, Europe, but not from my country. The people will not even take the money in rupiah because they no longer trust it. They will take U.S. dollars from the Western Union.”

“I had no idea things were this bad. If all I had seen of your country was the area around the hotel then I would think everyone in Indonesia is rich.”

“Indonesians believe all Americans are rich.”

“Trust me, they’re not.”

“Indonesians believe American schools are the best in the world.”

“American schools have eight hundred million problems. At least.”

“You can see Central Jakarta from here. See how tall my city is?”

She was right. The skyscrapers and luxury hotels could easily be seen in the distance.

“It is very easy for the people to see, but almost impossible for them to afford. We believe every American is rich because every American that come to my city can afford Central Jakarta.”

“The ones who can’t afford it don’t come. You know it’s that simple.”

Indira nodded. “I know. But here the only truth that matters is what the people can see. The city grows taller, the people here live in the shadow, foreigners shop in stores that are not Indonesian so your money will not stay in my country, but your money will make life more expensive for every Indonesian with no choice but to stay.”

“You’re not going to self-detonate now, are you?”

Indira smiled wryly. “My sister is secretary in Central Jakarta.”

“Is that a good job?”

“If you work for foreign company. My sister is secretary for Indonesian company.”

“What’s the difference?”

“She has not been paid her salary in six months.”

“She hasn’t been paid in six months, but she’s still working there?”

“Yes.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“I get half my salary in U.S. dollars. I am very lucky because I can help my sister and my parents.” She thought for a second, and then added, “The only time I think to self-detonate is when I have to work with people like Wallach.”

“He has that effect on people.”

“You are lucky to be American. Do you know why I work so hard for this conference? I will help Indonesian teachers. The teachers will help Indonesian children. The children will help my country.”

“Then I came along and said nobody you invited to the conference had any answers. Sorry about that.”

Indira let loose her outrageous laugh. “Oh come on, Mr. Strange. I tell you many times already that I am not blind. I can see you do not trust easy. I also think you forgot how to trust yourself. But I trust you, and I know today you will help Chyka.”

I really had no idea how to respond.

“You wish to change the topic. I can tell.”

“No, we can talk about Chyka. Is it a good job to be a teacher here?”

Indira shrugged. “A government school is not good. I think maybe four hundred U.S. dollars a month is normal salary. Better than my loners, but still not good. Private teacher is good, and international teacher is rich, but only if you are foreigner.”

The train to Bogor finally pulled into the station.

“Thank you for doing this,” Indira said.

“You’re welcome.”

“I need one more favor.” Indira reached into her purse and came out with a nametag identical to the two she’d given me already. “Please wear your nametag all the time,” she said, struggling mightily to keep a straight face. She clipped it to my shirt before I could protest.

“Did you at least get me a first class seat?”

Indira laughed so hard, she could barely catch her breath. I saw why when I got on the train. It didn’t have any seats.