Friday, April 21, 2017

Riding in Hong Kong: Hostile Buses, a Big Hill

[Before my ride from the Adriatic Sea, to the Black Sea, to the Baltic Sea this summer, I will be writing about the places I have ridden around the globe that may be more dangerous than where I will be riding in June and July.]

Hong Kong island viewed from Kowloon on the mainland

Between 1998 and 2001 I made a half-dozen trips to Hong Kong.  Usually the trip to Hong Kong was just a stop on a longer trip from America, to Europe, to Singapore or Perth and then through Hong Kong on the way back to America.  My first trip to Hong Kong was early in 1998, less than a year after Hong Kong was re-united with China.  I was told to be very careful that the bustling center of free enterprise in Asia was going to be more subdued under Communist rule.

They were so wrong.  This vibrant city pasted against a cliff on an island just south of the mainland was more alive 24 hours a day than any city I have ever visited. In every way it was an exciting and dangerous place to ride a bike.

The city itself is mobbed with traffic, much of it buses. The two main types of buses are the lumbering double deckers and the screaming minibuses. The turbodiesel engines of the smaller buses seemed always to be at full throttle.

The real bicycling challenge though was above the city.  I usually was in Hong Kong for just two or three days. Each day I would ride from the city up the mountain to Victoria Peak on Stubbs Road and Peak Road.  These long, steep roads were a series of switchbacks that rose above the city passing the houses of Hong Kong millionaires. English-language academies nestled in the trees along this road.  After the long climb up, I had a blazingly fast descent.  As I dropped off the mountain into the city I carried some of the speed from the descent and hit the six-lane Hennessey Road at more than 35 mph.
After descending the mountain on a two-lane road, I was in heavy traffic on Hennessey, between  lumbering buses and darting motorbikes.  One day, I came down the mountain and started to pass a big orange bus in the right lane. The bus was two stories of flat steel on its left side.  Hong Kong, like most former British colonies has right-hand drive. The middle lane was empty when I passed the back end of the orange bus, but then another double decker started turning into my lane. The mid-afternoon sun disappeared as the distance between those buses disappeared.  I pedaled liked I was in the final sprint in a Tour de France stage.  As I passed the bus on the left, the driver looked at me and kept moving right.

In China, bicycles a lower class transport.  Worse, Asia has no tradition of chivalry, so ties in traffic go to the bigger vehicle.  I shot past the orange, slower bus and swerved in front of it to escape being crushed.  I kept pedaling and did not look back till I passed under a yellow light and the buses had to stop.

I was so jazzed, I went up the hill again. Too much adrenaline to waste.

A Hong Kong Double Decker Bus

The Double Decker Buses own the Hong Kong streets

While I had the occasional near miss with a double decker bus, I had daily trouble with the minibuses. These buses are often full beyond their 26-passenger capacity. These 10,000-pound vehicles are powered by a 3-liter turbo diesel engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission.

From a traffic light, I would pull rapidly away from these overloaded buses, pissing off the driver who hates all bikes. I would get a great sprint workout riding as hard as I could while hearing the turbodiesel screaming behind me, the driver shifting at max rpms to have the best chance of squashing me under his wheels.  But he and I both knew, someone would want to get out of the bus before he could complete his plan to make a spandex smear on a Hong Kong Boulevard.

The Evil Minibus

Despite the evil buses, I loved riding up and down from the Peak.  There is a cable car that goes straight up mountain and beside it an old Army trail with a 35% grade.  Hong Kong is crowded, beautiful and an amazing place to ride.

Looking down to Hong King and Kowloon from the Cable Car

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dante's Inferno in Iraq: A Podcast




This post is just a link to a podcast on Sectarian Review. The podcast is about the Dead Poets Society Book Group I led on Camp Adder, Iraq.  Also on the podcast is a professor who teaches Dante every year.

That group started almost eight years ago in July 2009.  Here's the link.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ten Years Ago Today: Cold War Soldier Does the MEPS Duck Walk

Doctor at MEPS shows recruits how to Duck Walk

Ten years ago, I woke up at 0400 (4 a.m.) with about 40 other recruits to take the physical and the other tests that would allow me to re-enlist.  Everybody except me and one other guy were between 17 and 20 years old.  I sat with the other Old Guy at breakfast. He was 29 years old, I was 53. We were the old guys.

During that day at MEPS (Military Enlistment Processing Station) we got blood tests and probes stuck anywhere they would fit.  I knew all that was coming. But my big worry was the duck walk. We had to squat down and walk across a room, about 20 feet, in a squat, with our hands on our hips.

At the time I re-enlisted, I was an avid bicycle racer. I was in shape, good shape "for my age." But the Duck Walk worried me. I might be in good shape for my age, but the Duck Walk is easy for any reasonably fit 18 year old, not so easy for those of us over 50. As it turns out, it was not so easy for my new 29-year-old friend.  We lined up with a half-dozen kids in the third Duck Walk wave and waddled across the room.  The other old guy and I grunted, struggled, wobbled but finally made the distance. We were slowest finishers by a lot.

The Duck Walk Outdoors

We passed. We high-fived each other and made the kids laugh, and whisper about WTF the old guy was doing enlisting.

After the needles, latex gloves, turning and coughing and eye charts, we got dressed and went to another part of the building for the aptitude test.

This was the third time I had taken the entrance exam. In 1972 when I first enlisted in the Air Force, and again in 1975 when I re-enlisted in the Army, I took the test. Back then it was on paper. Today it was on a computer.  By the time we left the test room and returned to the waiting area, we knew the results.  No waiting.

When I walked back to the testing room, the Navy Chief Petty Officer in charge of the test stood up, walked around his desk and shook my hand in front of the group.  He said, "You just got the highest score of anyone we tested this year.  Congratulations! You qualify for any job in the Army, Hell, any branch of the service based on these scores."

Then he added, "But at your age, there are damn few schools that will take you. But good job!"

I thanked him.  He was right.  Everything good in the military has an age limit.  But I knew that coming in. I was just happy I passed the Duck Walk.  Now more paperwork.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chemical Weapons: Feeble in War, Powerful Against Civilians



Nearly a hundred civilians died in agony this week and hundreds more will be crippled by a Sarin gas attack in Syria.  Murdering unprotected civilians is the most effective way to use chemical weapons.  Since they were introduced 102 years ago, they have been a failure on the battlefield, but a terrible success against civilians.

German Captain Fritz Haber gave the command to release chlorine gas from hundreds of cylinders at Ypres in April of 1915. At that moment, chemical warfare became part of the horrors of trench warfare for the remainder of World War I.

Chemical weapons were not used in World War II, or subsequent wars, except the Iran-Iraq War in the late 80s. Military leaders soon found that chemical warfare is less effective than kinetic (bombs and bullets) warfare.  With the additional problem that the winners often cannot occupy the territory they take.  An area contaminated with Sarin or other nerve agents will take weeks to decontaminate.

While they are not very effective against trained, protected soldiers, chemical weapons work very well against civilians, particularly in cities.  Closed, crowded spaces are perfect for chemical weapons. Subways, meeting halls, sports arenas are all perfect places to use chemical weapons.

In 1977, one of my additional duties as a tank commander in West Germany was CBR NCO. I was the Chemical, Biological, Radiation Weapons Sergeant for our unit.  Each month I gave and hour-long class in a different weapon of mass murder and how to survive.  Although we tank soldiers had a better chance of surviving than ground troops, everyone knew that in a war with gas and nukes and weaponized bugs, we were going to die.

At the end of each class I would yell, "On your feet!"  The room stood up and I presented the doomsday scenario of the month.  What should we do if our position is hit with a nuclear weapon? Or what should do if we are attacked with artillery shells full of nerve gas, the kind that will kill you even if you get a drop on your skin?

The soldiers answered in unison, "Sergeant Gussman, we will put our heads firmly between our legs and kiss our ass goodbye!"

We walked out laughing, but no one thought these weapons were anything but terrifying. They still are.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ten Years Ago: Re-enlistment Paperwork

At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 2009 running the Army Physical Fitness Test
in a gas mask. My official job was Chemical Weapons Decontamination Specialist.

In the last blog post, I finally made the call to begin the re-enlistment process. After calling the recruiter, I pulled together all the documents I could find to confirm my prior service, scanned them and sent them. 

Two days after the call, I was the dog that caught the car.  I thought, “What now?!!”  What was I going to do if I actually got back in the Army. I thought about volunteering for some sort of chemical weapons job.  Most everyone dislikes chemical weapons in principle and in practice.  Wearing a gas mask and chemical protection gear is somewhere from uncomfortable to horrible.

But the fact that most people don’t like the chemical weapons branch made it attractive. It fit with the idea that I was replacing my failure at community service with Army service.  

Part of my thinking in re-enlisting was that I would join a Type A group of people in community service.  I had tried volunteering with local charitable groups. I failed. The people who run food pantries and women’s shelters and adoption support groups are really nice people. 

They drove me nuts.

When I volunteered, I just wanted to do something useful: Stack boxes, sort cans, something. But volunteering with nice people means a lot of hand-wringing. Also in the first years of the new century the economy was good. It was artificially good as it turns out, but in 2007, the economy seemed good, the terrorists had not attacked again.

I wanted the organization I volunteered for to have a goal and fight for it.  The Army was in two wars and needed soldiers.  The change in recruiting age that would allow me to get back in was proof the Army really needed soldiers.  By simply showing up I could definitely do one thing that I had done in 1972: Show up.  If I was in the Army, the Army needed to recruit one less soldier. 


So if things worked out and I got back in, I would volunteer for chemical weapons protection of some kind.  But first I had to get in.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Ten Years Ago Today: Cold War Soldier Starts Re-enlistment Process

The Night Before Basic, Killing Brain and Lung Cells

On January 31, 1972, I flew to Texas to begin basic training. On April 2, 2007, ten years ago today, I called Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Askew, recruiting sergeant for the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade, and began the process of re-enlisting after 23+ years as a civilian.  I was 53 years old at the time, about to turn 54.

In the Spring of 2007, The Surge in Iraq was in full swing and recruitment for the Army was down a lot. The economy was good, Congress would not even consider re-starting the Draft, so in late 2006 Congress raised the maximum first-enlistment age for the Army from 35 to 42 years old.

The program was a failure and was rescinded three years later. But that failed program allowed me to re-enlist.  The maximum enlistment age for soldiers with prior service is the enlistment age plus the years of prior service plus a one-year waiver.  I needed all of that.

I called three recruiters before I called Kevin. He was the first one to pick up the phone. I told him about my education and prior service before I told him how old I was. He did not hesitate. He asked for all the papers I had that would confirm my prior service dates. He thought there was a good chance I could get back in, but only as an enlisted man. I told him that was fine. At my age, there were very few programs I could be retrained in, and despite my education, nothing as an officer. I was way past the maximum age for officer and warrant officer programs.

Because the other recruiters did not answer the phone, I decided to go with the Aviation unit, which led to the one regret I had for the rest of my time on this enlistment. I should have gone back to an armor unit.  I really did miss tanks themselves, few things are more fun than speeding across open country in 55 tons of armor, or firing the tank's main gun.

Few places in the Army have the same camaraderie as a tank.  Except for crews with a platoon leader or commander, everyone in the tank is an enlisted man. I flew a lot of missions on Blackhawks and Chinooks. There was banter among the crew chiefs, door gunners and flight engineers and there was banter int he cockpit, but the divide between the officers and enlisted men was clear.  The tank crews I was part of were a team of more or less equals. We were all enlisted, even if only one of us was in charge.

April 2, 2007, was Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter.  The irony of signing up to go to war on the night before Good Friday was not lost on me.

At the time I was keeping my plans to myself. I did not want to worry my family, friends, co-workers or anyone else in my life with a crazy plan that had, as I saw it at the time, a low chance of success.

As it turns out, my enlistment plans would hit a Himalayan speed bump on May 9, 2007, but that is for a later post.