Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Afghanistan: Letter to a U.S. Marine

Listen to the podcast -- downloadable mp3 file.

Dear Son:

I’ve been following the news, as requested, for “anything Afghanistan” and I have to say it has been seriously alarming. Chinook helicopter down, 16 dead. 4 troops missing. All in the area of extreme eastern Afghanistan where you are, or where I presume that you are. I'm worried and am praying constantly for your safety and for all of those with you.

In “following the news for anything Afghanistan” I saw things that perplexed me. For example, you described 127 degrees Fahrenheit days. But, in some of the photos I saw of southern Afghanistan, there was snow on the ground. Well, it must have been high in the Hindu Kush and/or the Himalayas. What a shock to the system! It reminds me a bit of the experience I had when I was taking a field mapping class in northern Arizona.

It was 1981. I was 23. I lacked two classes for my geology degree. It was Iintroduction to Field Geology.” Then, I would need to take “Field Geology.” The normal procedure was to take “Intro to Field” during the spring semester. Then, you’d go out into the field every other weekend and map intriguing locations throughout Oklahoma.

After finding out that the professor who was teaching the weekend “Intro to Field Geology” had given at least two of his students bleeding ulcers, I decided that was not for me. I was (even back then) extremely nervous, self-doubting, and fearful of failure (and success). I liked the idea of mapping, and I loved describing lithology and using the equipment… Brunton compass, “stereo pairs” – air photos that allowed you to see in three dimensions. Frankly, I loved geology. It was fun. This was years before GPS, maybe even a decade. We could not just enter in our locations after pressing a button on our cell phones that activated a GPS search function. Actually, cell phones did not exist yet. Neither did fax machines. Come to think of it – how did we function at all? I remember doing a lot more manual work. Oh well. If I think about this too long, my eyes will cloud with tears.

I wanted to keep my weekends free, so I opted to take the class in May, during “Intersession,” between Spring and Summer. Instead of traveling around Oklahoma, or staying in the tick and rattlesnake-infested camp near Turner Falls in southern Oklahoma, someone opted for the tick and rattlesnake-infested Grand Canyon. To be precise, it was the North Rim of the Grand Canyon – the Kaibab Plateau.

So. Those of us intrepid enough to sign up for the class – 20 guys and 2 females – showed up at the Geology Building parking lot early one Saturday morning, and readied ourselves for the long trek west.

It was to be a really crazy fandango. But, that’s another story…

We piled into two vans and headed west – traversing western Oklahoma on I-40, zipping across the Texas Panhandle, stopping briefly in Amarillo for dinner at Gardski’s Loft. Then, instead of overnighting in Tucumcari, New Mexico, at a comfortable Holiday Inn, the guys (of course!) opted to camp out at a state park – Blue Lake, to be precise. Someone decided it was too extreme to pitch the big tents, so we slept out under the stars. I remember being annoyed by how bright they were and how close they seemed. It was definitely hard to sleep.

The morning dawned and the first thing to do was to shake out my boots in case of snakes, spiders, and/or scorpions. There was only one other female in this big herd of student geologists – that was my friend, Cecile, who was from Norway, and who was at the University of Oklahoma on a track and field scholarship. She was a champion shot-putter. I might mention at this point that I also threw the shotput competitively. It was when I was 16. I got tendonitis after joining the cross-country team, and my endurance (thanks to being on the swim team, too) far outstripped the capacity of my body do withstand constant pounding. Oh well. The long and short of it was that I developed tendonitis and was compelled by the coach to throw the shot put. This does not seem funny until you take a look at me as a 16-year-old. Although I considered myself grotesquely fat, the reality was that I was 5-7 and weighed less than 120 pounds. I was not skinny – but I was definitely on the lean side. Anyway – I managed to throw it 16 feet. Cecile could heave it at least 40 feet. That should give you an idea of how different we were.

Along the way, we stopped at Gallup, New Mexico. There were small shops everywhere with Southwestern Indian jewelry – Navajo, with big chunks of turquoise and orange coral in silver settings. My favorite was the Hopi jewelry. I loved the Kachina dolls, so I likewise was enamored of anything that had a similar design. The mother of pearl, the turquoise, the coral and silver fascinated me. Strangely enough, the only other place I’ve seen such wonderful selections of Desert Southwest Indian jewelry was in Guam. There was an amazing store in a shopping mall designed for Japanese tourists.

My father used to spend a lot of time in this part of the country. Years ago, there were large uranium mines. People were looking for the mineral in order to process it and create fuel for nuclear power plants.

More recently, uranium has been processed to make the so-called “depleted uranium” which is, specifically, “uranium hexafluoride,” used for building armor-piercing missiles. It is super-heavy and penetrates just about anything.

This is an intriguing concept – hard to know how or why that happens.

After mining the uranium ore, the commonly accepted practice was to dump the “tailings” (the waste product left after extracting the mineral) on the ground in a huge mountain of unconsolidated conglomerate.

Unfortunately, these mountains were radioactive due to the residual radiation in the dust. When the wind blew, the inhabitants breathed fresh air laced with radioactive uranium tailings. Years later, someone started to notice high cancer rates and birth defects. Was the high rate due to radioactive tailings? Or, was it due to above-ground testing to the west, in southern Nevada?

This was 1981. Did anyone still remember the Roswell, New Mexico, incident back in 1947? One theory was that the craft from another galaxy was attracted to that particular energy – the radiation—and they wanted to come to earth, lay their eggs in nice, radioactive soil, where they could hatch, then take over.

Some people say that is what happened. Others claim the Roswell incident was an experiment of some sort and then it became mythologized.

I like the alien explanation, although it’s hard to prove.

When people come to the U.S. from other countries, they often continue traditions imported from their country of origin. They maintain diet, dress, and customs. Eventually, their unique customs enter the mainstream and influence the culture at large. If this, indeed, happened in Roswell, how would we recognize extraterrestrial influences? (especially if “they walk among us” like pod people…)

Food for thought.

Many people say our technological advances would not be possible without the receipt of extraterrestrial knowledge. The extraterrestrials gave us computers, plastics, flight, and iPod technology.

We seem to have everything except time travel.

I hope things are going well in Afghanistan. I continue to pray for your safety, and for the safety of your buddies. It’s not easy. They say that opium production is up. I’m not sure what the implications are, but I can imagine that the “poppy mafias” are flexing their muscles. Do they speak Russian? I’ll bet they speak other languages, too.

I miss you and will be thinking of you. I am very, very proud of you. Please remember that -- and, be sure to brush your teeth and floss. I'm sending you some dental floss in the next care package. (he-he -- could help but throw that in... I'm hopeless !! )

Take care, and remember that your mom cares!!

Love from