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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Look By Chris Brecheen (Part 2)

The Look (Part 2) 
By Chris Brecheen

Continued from Part 1

There was no time to shout or point or shake the mom or catch the attention of the driver.  There was no time even to think.

I grabbed him.  I put my right arm around his little body and yanked back so hard I flew back too.  He started screaming bloody murder and his palm comp sailed out of his hand,  back over his head, and shattered all over the sidewalk behind us.  The van blasted by, doing at least fifty, right through the place the little guy was standing a half a second earlier.  

I was lying on the ground with this squirmy kid starting to screech on top of me.  The mom just stared, and I figured that hell was about to break loose: “You broke his fucking hand-comp.”  “You twisted his ankle, you idiot.”  “What’s your fucking problem?  You like pretending to save the day so you can cop a feel?”  I’d end up having an uncomfortable talk with some cops about getting handsy with kids or have to pay for a new hand-comp.  It would suck, but it would be worth it.   

Except this woman just kind of looked at me with her mouth hanging open, and I could even hear the person on the other side of her interlink screaming panicked hellos.  “Thank you,” she said.  She even held out her hand to help me up.  

“I usually get yelled at for stuff like that,” I said to her as I helped the kid up.  I made sure he was only crying because his game was broken and not because he was hurt.  And she looked at me and said—and  I’ll never forget this—she said  “No one who saw the look on your face just now could have doubted...  I mean...  I guess it was just very clear that you wanted to protect him. ”

I know this sounds really wild, but if there was a look that got me off the hook with irate parents, I wanted to figure it out, so I didn’t get so many restraining orders and “firm talkings to.”  I went home that night, sat in front of the mirror and made faces at it for hours.  You should have seen me.  Grown man making every face from tongue out and eyes crossed to the GQ thinker pose trying to catch this look--this one look--that made it clear I wanted to protect someone.  I finally gave up and went to bed.  Maybe she was just nice.  Stranger things have happened.

About a week later, I was at the restaurant cleaning off my table with a rag that smelled like red wine and tofu meatballs.  I was looking at a pair of ten dollar coins, a little tiny New Testament (my seventh), and a note about how I should stop by on Sunday as the tip on a $826 check.  I watched myself cleaning the table in the mirror on the back wall and I thought about how much I hated that job and my useless degree.

See I ended up coasting in college, but I didn't start out doing so.  I was young.  I was stupid.  I was filled with delusions of grandeur.  I wanted to “make a difference.”  Isn’t that the most precious thing you’ve ever heard?   “Make a difference.”  I didn’t just want to make a difference the way most people do.  I wanted to bring the world together and I thought communication was the key.  Most people are okay making a difference once the bills get paid, the Joneses are kept up with, and if there’s nothing good on television that night.  They’ll recycle if it’s not too much trouble and a truck picks it up with the trash.  Not so much if it means really separating their trash and driving it the two blocks to a center.  They care part time.  They care...if it’s not too much trouble to care.  

With me, it was different.  I really wanted to make a difference. I wanted to fight the good fight--maybe a job with a shitty paycheck but that righted social injustice.  I wanted to change the world, and hand the next generation something worth inheriting.  Well, we’d sort of past the point of giving our children something “worth inheriting,” but maybe something that didn’t suck so much might have still been possible.  

I wanted all those wobbly little kids to get a world that was birthright not a millstone.

And there it was: The Look.  Cleaning that table, thinking about everything going wrong in the world, and how some little two year old, whose greatest sin is saying “no” a lot, has nothing to do with all that crap but is going to have to deal with it anyway.  I glanced up and caught my reflection in the mirror, and I saw The Look.

It’s hard to describe it precisely, but the lady was right.  There was no doubt of the intention behind that look.  I meant to protect.  I meant to keep safe.  My jaw was kind of squared and my eyes had a determined hundred yard stare.  I looked like I want to swoop in like a super hero and save the day.  I had to get out of that stupid job and change the world.  Communication had to be good for something besides waiting tables.

I started my first freelance article for the Chronicle less than a week later.

Of course this is all just “critical back story” for what happened on The Danube.  I don’t know if you’ve ever done a hot gig, but you can’t just stroll into a war zone with a press pass tucked in your hat.  Reporting out there takes a lot of coordination. You arrange everything through the military, and they assign a liaison to make sure you don’t drive through a mine field or walk into a city to interview the local pastry chef five minutes before an air strike.  Usually it’s an experienced, enlisted soldier who would rather have a root canal than deal with you, and you get to argue a lot about how they’re only taking you to things they want you to see, and leaving out the rest.  The military is, well…a soldiers’ outlook is generally a little different than a journalist’s.

My liaison for my final assignment was a hardboiled sergeant named Erik Hoffman.  His meticulously groomed crew cut of stark blonde hair and square jaw filled his head with sharp, unnatural angles and long, chiseled edges that made him look like one of those vintage 20th century computer games made up of only basic shapes—cubes and pyramids and cylinders.  His eyes were sharp blue like a blade.   I wondered at first if he could draw blood just by glaring at me hard enough.  Though if that were true, it would have happened early and often because he loved glaring.  He glared like no man I’ve ever met.  It was a focused, intense stare whether he was looking at a questionable tree line, a suspicious ribbon of road, a superior officer, or a plate of mashed potatoes.  He never just turned his head to talk to you either.  He would either talk without ever looking away from something or would swivel his whole body to face you completely.

Erik did not like me even a little.  He never even tried to hide it.  When his C.O.—a Lieutenant Colonel named Angelica Winters—introduced us, and I stuck out my hand, he just let it hang there and looked straight at me.  “Mister Easton…” he said.

“You can call me, Qasim,” I said.  “You say Mr. Easton, and I turn around and look for my dad.”  That joke usually got at least a smile from military types. 

Erik only glared.  

“I’ve been assigned to be your escort for this assignment, Mr. Easton,” he said.

Sadly, this was not the first time I’d run into a sour reaction from front line soldiers.  I was used to feeling like the enemy when I worked foreign conflict.  “Thank you, Sergeant,” I said.

Let me tell you a little about the Danube theater.  I know you think you know, but you don’t.   It’s horrific in a way that no American in an air conditioned journalism offices can even fully grasp intellectually.  Even if they read every release, they wouldn't understand.  

Even level three water rats gets you a daily allotment twice as big as what these people see in a month.  And they don't have separate drinking water, either--it's all grey.  (Well, it's grey if their lucky--usually brown would be a better descriptor.)  The day-to-day reality along the river is worse than anything but the most pitched battles of China.  Budapest is the last place the river has enough actual water to really even treat.  It's not too bad in the winter, but in the summer, the ooze of slimy goop that dribbles south-east is mostly toxic sludge run off from industries, human waste, and tenth generation grey water too contaminated to be reclaimed.  It sluices down from pipes that stick awkwardly out of the city walls above the water level.  A century ago those pipes were underwater and silently added their yield to the rush of the Danube.  Forty years ago, you’d only see them in the summer when the river level lowered.  These days, on a hot summer afternoon, they might percolate their horrors from four feet above the river's surface.

That is, of course, if the glorified creek that continues southeast can really even still be called a river at that point.  The spume of sludge from the Budapest waste pipes makes up over half of what seeps onward.  

To make matters even worse, the water is already poison by the time it leaves Vienna. Without expensive treatment that takes the infrastructure of a major city, it might look okay (if that) but it is chock full of contaminants and micro-organisms.  People drinking it get enteric diseases three or four times a year; huge cholera and typhoid breakouts are weekly events; it actually kills most crops; and bathing in it causes chemical burns.  And they drink it anyway because they have nothing else.  Boil the water and treat it with iodine and you might be okay, but it's impossible to boil enough day after day.  

Budapest has enough reclamation technology to stave off total disaster, pumping water through these huge concentric filters of smaller and smaller mesh that pull out the unwanted detritus and then chemically treat so that it’s palatable enough for consumption.  

However, for two hundred and fifty kilometers between Vienna and Budapest, every village, town, and small city on the bank is basically drinking poison—they’re a hotbed of dissent, like pools of gasoline under a spray of sparks.  A town might go from staunch allies to joining the any one of a dozen rebel factions in two days because a cholera epidemic kills a dozen kids before the Red Cross could show up, or a die hard stronghold of insurgents could be bought off with a single tanker truck if they got caught in a bad way.  People buried any genuine loyalty to the UN, the PMC, or any of the rebel factions at the first sign of the mob’s capricious shift. Not doing so often gets whole families killed or people lynched in their hometown square.  Half a dozen nations from China to Russia to the Mideast Consortium arm and fan the flames of the slightest insurgency no matter how bellicose Western diplomacy becomes.  

And of course, you’ve never seen someone fight until they’re mindlessly thirsty, and you’re telling them they can’t have your water.

It isn't as if a village that changes sides will run up a new flag or send out a formal declaration either.  They'll just mine the nearby road, hijack tanker trucks, ambush U.N. forces in town square, house a rebel staging point, or murder soldiers on furlough, all while smiling sweetly.  Any preconceived notion can be deadlier than a bullet. The Danube is as horrific a warzone as I’ve ever seen, and remember I cut my teeth doing press releases out China’s southern front, so that’s not hyperbole.  At least there we knew which side was which.  But on The Danube, the lines are unclear.  The loyalties are even less clear.  Bulgaria is definitely PMC and Austria is definitely U.N., but in-between was a shifting mess of uncertainty.  Everything can change in just a moment, and nothing is what it seems.  

I was doing a story on the impact of military action versus the impact of more water shipments.  I needed lots of stories from hotspot villages that had changed hands many times through military action but calmed when they finally got a steady supply of water.  It would be difficult to get interviews I needed, so we had a fortnight of long drives up and down the river ahead of us.  We traveled in a battered up old jeep with a busted radio and that crappy suspension that petrol vehicles have.  The rides were long, uncomfortable, and boring.  It drove me crazy that Erik wouldn’t even talk to me.  

“Been in the military long?” I asked him.

Continued in Part 3

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