Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Month That Was - August 2009

The Month That Was - August 2009: From a personal perspective the big achievement this month was getting through a revision of Misspent Youth. I am now comfortable with the idea that it is good enough for publication or, more accurately, it will be good enough for publication once it is further refined. The story is complete. The words are all written. My concern at this point is the structure. The timeline is lopsided in the early activity takes place over weeks and the later activity is condensed into a couple of days. Additionally, there are rapid and numerous changes of POV and there about ten characters to track. This is more complicated than anything I have written before and the structure of the chapters and divisions have a great importance. So my new goal is to nail down a workable structure then turn it over a beta release to some trusted eyes. There is much work to do, but I finally feel positive about its eventual release.

The other wonderful thing that happened this month is that I finally recovered from this horrendous ankle injury that was keeping me from doing any sort of running all summer. I was never really sure what was wrong, either a bad tendon tear or a stress fracture, but whatever it was I literally could not do anything that required me to push off my left foot with any force. Walking was OK, as was biking, but running or jumping were right out. This had continued for nearly four months. I tried everything short of doctors to get it rehabbed -- stretches, muscle activation therapy, ultrasound. I was seriously despairing of it being permanent and just another indicator of my mortality. Finally, I started using a foam roller to massage and loosen the muscles and either that worked or it luckily coincided with it healing naturally. Anyway, I am back to running again (and doing box jumps for that matter), although I am building very gradually. I had hoped to get up to doing the Mackinac Island 8-Mile run next month, but that may have to wait until next year. Still, I can feign immortality again, and that counts for something. Even if I did finally break down and buy a pair of reading glasses.

Noob of the Road
Hacker Smackers
Plane Foolishness
The Michigan Death Spiral Continues
Florida Reboot
Flick Check: Star Trek
Book Look: With the Old Breed
Travel Rewind: A Nondescript Quasi-Unknown Demi-Paradise

Noob of the Road

Noob of the Road: Apropos of nothing but my late life appreciation of road trips we have none other than Paul Theroux -- who has traveled throughout the world, from some of the more remote and undeveloped areas to great sprawling Asian cities, from railing across continents to sailing across oceans -- now in his sixties and taking his first road trip across the U.S. having seen pretty much none of his own country.

In my life, I had sought out other parts of the world--Patagonia, Assam, the Yangtze; I had not realized that the dramatic desert I had imagined Patagonia to be was visible on my way from Sedona to Santa Fe, that the rolling hills of West Virginia were reminiscent of Assam and that my sight of the Mississippi recalled other great rivers. I'm glad I saw the rest of the world before I drove across America. I have traveled so often in other countries and am so accustomed to other landscapes, I sometimes felt on my trip that I was seeing America, coast to coast, with the eyes of a foreigner, feeling overwhelmed, humbled and grateful.

Yep. Nothing compares to flyover country. Theroux did it wrong to some extent, barreling through the nation at a breakneck pace. He acknowledges this, saying that he didn't really see places long enough to do anything but make a list of where he wants to spend a proper amount of time. That would be awesome. If we suddenly got a slew U.S. travel stories from Theroux, I think we'd all be grateful for his road trips.

Open offer to Paul: drop me an email and I'll design you an epic itinerary.

Hacker Smackers

Hacker Smackers: Generally, I find it despicable when journalists take it upon themselves to spin supposed "news" into judgmental tracts. Such hubris and arrogance is deeply ugly and consummately slap-worthy. That's why I am moderately ashamed of myself for taking such glee in the Smoking Gun's high-handed take down of a group of cyber-vandals known as Pranknet.

Pranknet is a loose affiliation of monumental losers, pinheads, and convicted child molesters, who communicate in some chat room then go off and coerce innocent people into foolish acts by preying on their good and unsuspicious natures. For example, they seem to get a kick out of calling some place of business over the phone and convincing them to set off their fire alarm systems. Sometimes they run into particularly gullible marks and convince them to do especially humiliating or hurtful things. Often they just post fake Craigslist ads and deluge unsuspecting strangers with calls and visitors. Basically, they're a pack of infantile jerk-offs.

Anyway, Smoking Gun did some exhaustive research on this group, eventually unmasking them and turning all the evidence over to the FBI. Then of course, they wrote it up for publication making no attempt to hide their outright derision and loathing of these pathetic clowns. And I was surprised by how satisfying I found the venomous tone of the article. Maybe it's the way the Pranknet types virtually strut around all smug and self-righteous. Maybe it's the way they convince themselves that the people they hurt are really just "sheep". I couldn't help thinking they deserved it.

More standard coverage of a more interesting hacker comes from Rolling Stone. (Who knew Rolling Stone magazine still existed?) This prankster was old school and actually used the telephone. He had to because he was blind. Like the mythology goes, being blind he developed some kind of super hearing. He could control telephones and even switchboard networks by whistling at proper frequencies. He could hear and distinguish the tiniest sounds. He could imitate any sound or voice he heard. It's like something out of a comic book. But sadly, he used his superpowers for evil -- like organizing police raids on the houses of anyone who wouldn't have phone sex with him, a process he called SWAT-ing.

Unlike the Pranknet group, this guy is doing time. He foolishly continued his shenanigans after his 18th birthday and discovered adults get treated very differently than misguided teenaged nerds who play on their disabilities. Despite that, he doesn't seem all that regretful.

In both cases, the word that comes to mind is Comeuppance. I'll allow myself a little sanctimony, just this once.

Plane Foolishness

Plane Foolishness: Longtime readers know that as a result of numerous personal experiences I have deemed Mesa Airlines to be The Worst Airline in the World. I won't rehash the stories, but let's just say that if you are ever unfortunate enough to have a flight scheduled on Mesa and you end up only severely inconvenienced, you can consider yourself lucky.

So one day my eye lands on a headline: "Schedule Fatigued Pilots Who Fell Asleep". It seems the two man crew for a short hop flight in Hawaii between Oahu and the Big Island -- on Go! Airlines -- decided to catch some Zs while the plane was on autopilot.

Controllers tried unsuccessfully to contact the crew by radio and watched the jet fly to a navigation point and turn toward Hilo's airport without descending. Two other airplanes also tried to contact the Go! crew.

The jet flew 26 nautical miles past Hilo at 21,000 feet before the crew awoke 25 minutes after their last radio transmission. They contacted controllers and landed safely.

A contributing factor was the captain's previously undiagnosed severe obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that likely caused him to experience chronic daytime fatigue and contributed to his falling asleep, the NTSB said.

How comforting to us frequent flyers. But I left out the best part. The part that made me jump up and shout "Yes! Yes! I knew it!"

Go! is a unit of Mesa Airlines.

I've read it ten times now and I'm still just sitting here nodding my head.

In other news, as a follow-up to my disastrous trip back from Moab on US Airways, wherein they absolutely hosed me over a cancelled flight, I happened upon this story about airlines being fined for hosing folks who get bumped or have their flights cancelled. An interesting stat: In the first six months of last year (2008) the Dept. of Transportation received 50 complaints from US Airways passengers who received insufficient compensation. The DOT, in turn, fined Useless Airways $140,000 for their transgressions.

Now let's see. Let's assume for every complaint the DOT received there were 50 others who, like me, just tried to get compensation from the airlines and gave up after being told to talk to the hand. And let's assume every hosed passenger saved US Airways an average of $100 in compensation (vouchers, refunds, whatever). That means US Airways had 2500 non-complaints (50 non-complaints for each of the 50 complaints) for which they save $100 each, for a total of $250,000. Since they were fined $140,000, they came out ahead by $110,000. Seems to me shafting your customers is worth the risk.

This is me turning into a conspiracy crank before your very eyes.

Oh, and one last airline observation. I am sick and tired of getting hip checked in my aisle seat every time some wide load flight attendant lumbers through the cabin. If you're going to design planes with those narrow aisles, at least give us proper stewardesses who could fit between the seats without greasing up their thighs.

The Michigan Death Spiral Continues

The Michigan Death Spiral Continues: No, I can't seem to leave the follies of my home State without comment.

The ongoing operation of the "new" General Motors proceeds in a universe of surreality. A case-in-point being the machinations around the Orion plant. While making plans to return to some semblance of financial viability, GM execs decided it was best to close their problematic plant in the northern Detroit suburb of Lake Orion. It simply wasn't a profitable operation. But wait -- you can't possibly put those workers out in the streets, think of the cost to society! Best we keep the plant open and running, says the UAW -- which also happens to be the biggest GM shareholder. So deals are cut and arms are twisted and the great State of Michigan offers GM a Dr. Evil-esque one billion dollars in tax cuts (because the bailout money they've already received wasn't enough) to keep the plant open. Now the plant can be profitable, right? Well, no. You see the money is to be used to re-tool the plant to build tiny little econoboxes that adhere to the desire of the federal government (the second biggest shareholder in GM) for fuel efficiency -- despite the fact that such vehicles have never, even at the height of gas prices, sold enough to make money in this country. So the "new" GM business plan is:

  1. The Orion plant needs to close since it does not make money.

  2. The State of Michigan coughs up 1 billion in tax cuts so it can stay open and not make money.

  3. The Federal government says thanks, but you have to build the cars we want not what will sell, so it will always not make money.

  4. Profit!

Maybe they'll make it up on volume. How long before I can write off my portion of the bailout as a tax loss?

On the other hand, there is at least one example of someone dealing with reality rather than surreality. A consortium of Credit Unions has developed something called Save to Win wherein you get an entry in a raffle for a grand prize of up to $100,000 for every $25 dollars you deposit into your savings account. Now, a few moments thought will quickly reveal the absurdity of this. Your chance of winning is so small that you are almost certainly better off taking the time to find a higher interest rate than the somewhat low one offered by the program. But thoughtful people are not the target of the program. Easy money seekers are the target. The short-sighted are the target. People who simply do not have the intellectual wherewithal to do contingency planning are the target. The bank gets cheap assets (deposits on which they pay a lower interest rate). The suckers, er, customers get all tingly over a possible big payoff, but they also get something else -- money in the bank for a rainy day, although they won't have any appreciation of it. Absurd, definitely; but brilliantly rooted in reality. Nice to see that for a change.

Meanwhile, the City of Detroit wallows in its own persistent hell. The school system isn't just a total failure at education. It is corrupt beyond description, violent as a third-world hell-hole, and now, effectively bankrupt. Some choice quotes:

"The school system also has been rocked by corruption. A few years ago, an audit revealed that Detroit's school system misused more than $46 million on insurance and other contracts and was forced to sue venders [sic] to get some of its money back. Two of the system's employees were recently indicted for allegedly embezzling $400,000 from the school system over the past couple of years."

"In June, to stem pay-check fraud, [emergency financial manager Robert Bobb] required that employees pick up their paychecks in person. Paychecks for 257 suspected "ghost" employees--people who had improperly been getting checks--went unclaimed."

"In June, seven students were wounded in a shooting near Cody Ninth Grade Academy just two weeks after 16-year-old Tenecia Walter was shot in the chest shortly after leaving class at Denby High School. Earlier this year a gunfight broke out in Detroit's Central High School and last year a student was shot and killed walking home from Henry Ford High School."

"Detroit schools have lost 60,000 students."

"This is why [bankruptcy expert Ray] Graves and others see little alternative to declaring bankruptcy..."

How could things get like this? Well...

"In 2003 the state, under pressure from the Detroit Federation of Teachers, turned down a gift of $200 million from philanthropist Robert Thompson that would have established 15 charter schools in the city."

"In 2006, the union illegally went on strike, killing a plan to force teachers to take a pay cut to balance the system's books."

"[The Detroit Board of Education] is seeking a court injunction to block private companies from running district high schools."

Did you even have to ask?

Strangely enough, as bad as Detroit is -- and it's very, very bad -- if left alone to succeed without regulatory boards and layers of bureaucracy, some people have found a way to make something of the place. Specifically: Farmers. Imagine that. The return of rural Detroit. If left to their own devices, these folks could probably go whole hog and have barn-raising parties and build one-room schoolhouses where kids actually learn something. But what would the Board of Education say?

The article is a bit confused, especially in its implied ideas about economics. The thought chain is that since there are no longer grocery stores in Detroit and everyone has to shop at convenience stores, people eat atrociously and are severely unhealthy. If they farmed their own food, they could simply feed themselves and live holistically (whatever that means). That's not how farming works; it's an industry and the way it would help is by making use of the arable land that Detroit has in abundance now that everyone is abandoning their homes. This builds income for people who can then support the existence of profitable grocery stores so they can get a well rounded diet. But the hippie-commies at Guernica magazine have the right general idea which is to allow creative and clever people make use of the available assets rather than let everything sit in decay because it's impossible to get the bureaucracy to act without some kick back involved. Sadly, I think the only real question is how long it will take the powers of the City to find a way to crush them.

But just so I don't end on a sour note, we Michiganders who are staying have some good reasons.

Florida Reboot

Florida Reboot: (photos on Smugmug) You sit at the gate. The passengers are all loaded and belted in. The plane is fueled up and ready. The crew is ensconced in the cockpit. Yet you sit at the gate. You are waiting for parts. Not parts for your plane, but for another plane that happens to be at your destination. So you sit for an extra half hour because your first duty as a passenger is to mule spare parts for Northwest Airlines. Despite the hundreds of dollars you paid for your ticket, your vacation is not their priority; they are just giving you a lift because it happens to be convenient. Just another day as Northwest's bitch.

The whole trip was not shaping up as planned. I was going to fly into Orlando, barrel across the state to the Gulf coast to visit family in Sarasota, then barrel back across the state to the Space coast -- Cocoa Beach, specifically -- to catch the shuttle launch and enjoy some ocean time. Well, shortly after I had locked in my reservations, the shuttle launch got delayed a week. So much for that. Then my mom went into the hospital a few days before I left. She was out by the time I got to Sarasota and nearly fully recovered. (Frankly, at age 84, it's remarkable how healthy she is and how sharp she is mentally.) And any flight to Orlando is going to be filled with rugrats, and rugrats are known to be little germ factories. Sure enough, lying in bed my first night in Florida, a killer head cold descended upon me; the kind where you can feel the phlegm sloshing around between your ears. (Yes it's gross. Deal.) So my Florida vacation began with my planned activities hosed, and both me and my Mom under the weather. Weather which, by the way, was heat indexed well into the triple digits every day. The humidity was truly oppressive. Honestly, the place was like a sauna.

However, I would not be much of a traveler if I let such little annoyances slow me down. That's why God invented nasal spray and air conditioning, I suppose. After getting family duties situated I found myself with a free afternoon in Sarasota and used it for a visit to the Ringling Museum.

Although I have been to the Ringling Museum several times, it's been a few years since my last visit. Time was, the Ringling was one of the premier art museums in the South. It still is, I suppose, but its development hasn't gone as I would have hoped. The first thing that I discovered is that the price has gone up. You used to be able to get into the museum for $8 and I think there was one day of the week when it was free. No more. $25 to get in. That is more than MOMA or the Met in New York City. Ye gods!

I am not opposed to the price per se. My problem is that the money doesn't seem to have been spent on the Art museum. The grounds, which are extensive and are like a little city park in themselves, seem better maintained and manicured. The Ringling's Gatsby-esque historic home, Ca d'Zan, is nicely restored and worth a tour. A fine dining establishment has been added (that should be self-financing, though). But it looks to me like most of the resources have gone into the circus museums (with an expansion coming in 2012) which are the least interesting part of the complex to me. Why not devote more to the Art museum? The collection does not appear to have changed at all since I first visited probably 20 years ago.

That is not to say that the collection is short on fine works. It is loaded down with wonderful old masters and bits and pieces of other things. But the lighting is troublesome. It is often a struggle to position yourself so as to avoid glare. It's bad enough that it really interferes with viewing. There would a good place to spend some money. The museum courtyard is filled with stunning casts of classic bronze sculptures and is a remarkable space in itself, but like the museum, though well maintained it hasn't seen any improvements.

Griping aside, I spent a fine if somewhat sweaty afternoon wandering the grounds past lily ponds and flower gardens, then back around Ca d'Zan overlooking the bay. I cooled down in the museum taking some time to fill my camera here and there. Even at $25 it's a good way to spend the afternoon. A calm oasis in the midst of ever more crowded Sarasota. If find I have a special attraction to the place, having used it so often over the years as an escape zone whenever I'm down that way. I give it a slightly hesitant recommendation.

After one more dinner with the family, I rose the next day and darted across the state from Gulf to Ocean. After a little over three hours I was pulling into Cocoa Beach.

Compared to places like Sarasota, Naples, Miami Beach, even Key West, Cocoa Beach is a bit downscale. It's a beach town more along the lines of Key Largo or Ft. Myers Beach or Panama City Beach. (I'm getting positively encyclopedic in my classification of Florida cities). I can see why it is a popular destination for families, though. A cheap flight into Orlando gets you within an hour's drive. You can find a nice inexpensive hotel right on the beach (Doubletree in my case), many even have kitchenettes. There are plenty of cheap eats around. All sorts of little beach stores on every corner, surmounted by the original and sprawling Ron Jon Surf Shop. Kennedy Space Center is a short drive away for a day tour. You can easily run up to Daytona Beach if you need a redneck fix. And there are water parks and miniature golf and all that sort of stuff. You can lounge by the pool or take a chair out to the beach while the kids raise hell. Great way to spend a final week of summer vacation, provided you can handle the heat.

In fact, I was here on exactly such a trip as a child over 35 years ago. Actually, I was a little north of here in a lesser known place called Ormond Beach. What I remember best from that trip is spending what seemed like hours doing nothing but flopping around in the warm surf, wrestling the breakers, and the feel of the sandy bottom that stretched out endlessly into the ocean. And that's what I found again. The warm, buoyant salt water, the waves crashing around me, the smooth sand -- it was the Atlantic Ocean I remembered from childhood, and to this day I am quite clear on the visceral experience.

And while I was on the theme of reliving memories, the next day I took a two hour run up the coast to St. Augustine, another activity from that childhood trip, although one I don't have any specific recollection of beyond the knowledge that it happened.

St. Augustine is a nice spot. The mythology indicates it's where Ponce De Leon discovered the Fountain of Youth. It is also the oldest existing European settlement in the U.S. It fits in the same broad classification as Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA -- a city that exists for its own history, although I don't think St. A is terribly attentive to historical fidelity. Some very old structures have tacky little signs and displays and some look like they have been turned into souvenir shops. In fact, St. A has a fairly concentrated commercial zone. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it's just not as genuine as somewhere like Charleston -- never mind Savannah, the queen of detailed restoration. Of course, St. A also has a fine Florida beach which the other two can't remotely claim. St. A is basically for strolling about, and that's what I did, checking out the fort and wandering the picturesque streets, eventually settling in for a late lunch of crab tacos al fresco. And, naturally, filling my camera. A nice little day trip.

For my last full day in Florida I thought about dropping the nearly $80 for a day pass to the Space Center. But then I thought otherwise. I'll wait for that until I can get to see a rocket launch. Better I should get in the water again, so I headed out to Cape Canaveral National Seashore. A long, long stretch of undeveloped coastline, thought to be the longest on the Eastern Seaboard, running along a barrier island, CCNS gives you the soft sand Atlantic beach but with a definite sense of isolation. Bordering the interior sound, there are some short walking trails in various places. I took one called Seminole Rest, essentially a little park tucked out of the way on the mainland. It was really just a short paved walk, but there are a couple of interesting historic structures, and I have never seen so fiddler crabs in my entire life. They swarm like ants along the shoreline and onto the trails, darting into the water when they sense your approach, balancing the risk of getting stepped on versus getting gobbled by fish.

From there I took the longest possible way around to get to the beach area through the city of New Smyrna Beach, which is what I get for driving around without a map. Entering the shore from the north entrance, the road leads south along the island with five designated stops with parking and beach access. As I passed these they didn't seem too crowded so I figured I may as well go all the way to the last one which, as might be expected, is exactly what everyone else thought. I had to circle a couple of times but I finally managed to squeeze into a space. And despite the cars, the beach didn't seem very crowded at all. Looking north I think I spotted a couple of folks far in the distance otherwise it appeared deserted. To the south lay the truly remote beach -- Klondike Beach -- which is only accessible by foot and extends many miles until it connects up with the road north from the south entrance. Not that I was going to make it all the way, but I figured I'd walk a while in that directions. Well, a few hundred yards down there was a small encampment of people with beach chair and umbrellas. Since this place is about all about isolation I wasn't sure why they had all decided to drop their beach towels in the same spot until I got closer. It wasn't just their beach towels they had dropped. It was their bathing suits. I had inadvertently stumbled on a nude beach.

I'm struggling for what to say next. First off, yes, I did whip off my trunks and go for a swim. I would never have sought this out on purpose, but when in Rome... and so forth. Second, I did not laze about on the beach; once I was done with my swim, I left. Third, part of the reason I didn't hang around is because nude beaches are majorly populated by wrinkly out-of-shape middle-aged men who enjoy wandering around with their giblets on display. The upside is that as a wrinkly in-shape middle-aged man, I must have looked like a friggin' Adonis. But really, if I wanted that sort of visual, I'd just join a local country club and hang out in the locker room. Fourth, I decided every parent should require their teenage daughters to spend an hour at a nude beach. It would give us the rest of us some eye candy, and the poor girls would immediately renounce men and enter a convent.

I guess it's another notch in the bucket list -- albeit a very, very minor one. A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again. I would not hesitate, however, to spend more time at CCNS and the associated Merritt Island wildlife refuge. It's a gem in that overly touristed area.

And that was pretty much it. A quiet drink by the pool back at the Doubletree (fully clothed), then up the next day for the flight home -- after an obligatory stop at Ron Jon's for a t-shirt. The flight back had to be one of the easiest of my life. No delays at all. I literally walked off the plane in Detroit on to a waiting terminal shuttle then immediately on to a waiting parking shuttle. I think I made it back to my door in Dexter from Orlando in about 4 hours. Stunning.

I do enjoy my Florida explorations, even in the middle of August. I actually prefer the middle of August as no one else in their right mind would put up with the heat and humidity. I have at various times in my life trolled throughout virtually all of the State. It was good to relive a bit of my first trip to there. Although I tend to think of traveling as something that I came to later in life, as I look back, it now seems the with respect to Florida this habit was formed in my childhood and has been ongoing ever since. Perhaps after more than 35 years it was just time to start over from the beginning.

Flick Check: Star Trek

Flick Check: Star Trek: During the worst of my sick evenings in Florida I resorted to the in-room movies and paid a ludicrous amount of money to watch J. J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot. The plot itself is basically the same re-hashed dreck of all the old school Star Trek movies. Some familiar group of people go around saving the galaxy from some contrived danger or other all the while giving cartoonish self-narration as they go. All the old bollocks is there. Declaring this or that to be impossible, but using inane, pseudo-scientific gobble-dee-gook to save the day when someone shouts "Just do it, mister!" with authority. Information is withheld and revealed irrationally; preposterously timed to enhance tension. Characters aren't so much developed as puppeteered. You know: all the usual drivel. For that matter, it's no different from 99.999% of action movies of any stripe.

And yet, I found it oddly watchable and even enjoyable at times. Weeks later, I'm still not sure why. It had a good sense of humor. It moved quickly. The young actors hired to replace the old warhorses were exceedingly well cast -- in a mindless movie such as this, casting is at least 50% responsible for its success. Maybe J. J. Abrams just knows how to do action really well, on a level that I can't quite explain. Or maybe it was the cold medicine.

In any case, it's a good one to check out once it comes to cable, but it's not worth paying any money for. Unless your head is densely packed with mucus and you are stuck in a motel in a Florida town that essentially closes down once the early-bird specials are over. In that case you can spend thrice the going rate and not feel cheated.

Book Look: With the Old Breed

Book Look: With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge: You will be spared nothing in this startling WW2 memoir. Eugene Sledge, "Sledgehammer" to his compatriots, served with the Marine Corps in the Pacific and saw action at Peleiu and Okinawa. Sledge's memoir begins when he forgoes officer training and enlists so he won't "miss the war". In the early chapters we are treated to boot camp and other training experiences then, suddenly, as if descending into a nightmare, we are following him on to the beaches at Peleiu, lost in the fog of war -- the chaos and the paralyzing fear. The overwhelming sensations of the beach landing would stay with him his entire life. As he states,

Everything my life had been before and has been after pales in the light of that awesome moment when my amtrac started in amid a thunderous bombardment toward the flaming, smoke-shrouded beach for the assault on Peleiu.

The Peleiu battle turned out to be particularly deadly, having the highest casualty rate of any WW2 battle. Sledge doesn't hold back in giving a full account of the horrible inhumanities the Japanese committed and how the Corps built up a deep hatred of them. Nor does he gloss over the occasional shameful acts of his fellow servicemen, including the removal of the gold caps from the teeth of dead (and in one instance, not yet dead) enemy. In fact, the memoir is especially conspicuous in that Sledge, while hitting on many historic or political hot buttons, does not seem to have any axe to grind. The point of view is purely personal which makes the book hit all that much harder. And there is zero sense of ego or arrogance. Sledge was a simple mortar man, rank: Private First Class, throughout the battles. I don't think he received any battle commendations, not even a Purple Heart. He was there, did his duty, suffered and exulted, and is now telling the story.

And the story is complete, even beyond the fighting. There is the horrendous sanitation; the relentless pestilence of the tropics; the drudgery of hauling barrels of water and crates of ammo around; the inescapable, stifling stench of the dead everywhere; the dealings with officers good and bad; the terror in the black of a moonless night, hearing a Japanese raiding party assaulting his friends in the next foxhole over. Riveting and mortifying.

After a brief respite following Peleiu, he was again shipped off for another island landing at Okinawa, this time as a combat veteran with both greater confidence and greater trepidation. He tells sad tales of the new recruits who had clearly been rushed to the line, lacking training and receiving little sympathy from the vets. Okinawa, while not as deadly percentage-wise, went on for a very long time almost pushing Sledge to the breaking point. He had observed men who snapped under the pressure -- it was not uncommon. Fearing that may be his fate, he silently makes a vow to himself. "The Japanese might kill or wound me, but they wouldn't make me crack-up." After having read along with his descriptions of his experiences to that point, that simple statement resounds with boundless courage.

Throughout the ordeal, Sledge finds sources of strength: in God, in himself, in his training, but most of all he feels the source of victory was the esprit d'corps -- the brotherhood and bond between him and his fellow Marines is what kept him and the fight going in the heart of darkness. One suspects that after years of reflection, and acknowledgment of the cost, Sledge feels something akin to gratitude: gratitude for surviving, and for finding faith in his comrades-in-arms and strength in himself that he could carry throughout his life.

The HBO crew behind the astounding Band of Brothers mini-series is preparing a counterpart about the Pacific battles based in part on With the Old Breed. If they get it remotely close to right, they'll be swimming in awards.

Travel Rewind: A Nondescript Quasi-Unknown Demi-Paradise (August 2006)

Travel Rewind: A Nondescript Quasi-Unknown Demi-Paradise (August 2006): (photos on Smugmug) A few years ago I had the chance to take a brief Caribbean vacation to Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), a place most people have never heard of, never mind seen on a map. It is a group of nondescript islands south of the Bahamas. And when I say nondescript, I mean that in the sense that there is virtually nothing about TCI that stands out. They have a string of beautiful and expensive reports along an exquisite beach, just like dozens of other island groups. There is good diving and fishing, just like dozens of other island groups. And that's it. Literally. The most telling description (as you will read below) came from the shuttle driver on the way to the resort: "Welcome to Turks and Caicos. Tourism is about the only industry we have here so thank you for visiting."

Well it turns out TCI did stand out for one thing: government corruption. It was so bad that Great Britain came in dissolved their government and took over the administration of the islands, which they were legally able to do since TCI is a crown colony. In a moment of unintentional (but not unexpected) comedy, TCI's former leaders expressed outrage and declared themselves occupied by foreign invaders. The people of TCI had other opinions; specifically, they were overjoyed to be rid of their "elected" leaders and back under British rule.

(Just as a side note, in an effort to raise the unintentional comedy to new heights, Slate magazine took the time to determine if Canada was next.)

I think I can safely guarantee you that nobody in Her Majesty's government, nor any of Her subjects, wants anything to do with Turks and Caicos. They have a full plate already without having to worry about supporting and managing some island outpost. Nothing would make them happier than to get TCI off the books forever. Personally, I suspect there are drugs involved. TCI offers a lot of opportunities for plane stopovers for drug smugglers and I don't doubt TCI's leaders were in cahoots with them.

Whatever the case, it makes for a nice long intro to this travel rewind.

Turks and Caicos (TCI) is a chain of islands in the Caribbean; just south of the Bahamas and just north of Haiti. There is little industry or economic activity beyond tourism -- in fact, on the way to the hotel, the driver dryly offered, "Welcome to Turks and Caicos. Tourism is about the only industry in the islands so thank you for coming."

TCI is of British extraction, like Bermuda or the Bahamas or Grand Cayman. However one of the oddest things I learned was that for many, many years there has been discussion and debate over whether it should become a Canadian province. Apparently there are strong ties to Canada and the question has come up in the parliaments of both places. Typical of the damn Canadians, always trying to expand their empire.

From what I could see, most islanders have little interest in politics. There does not appear to be any significant poverty, although I certainly wouldn't call the island wealthy in the sense of a Grand Cayman (never mind Bermuda). But they may be getting there.

For the time being there is a certain dichotomy. There are a huge number of top flight resorts -- including some of the best in the world, such as the famous celebrity hang out Parrot Cay and the requisite Beaches and Club Meds and so forth -- the overwhelming majority of which are situated along Grace Bay on the island of Providenciales, or Provo. Grace Bay is rightly renown as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world -- a multi-mile crescent of powdery white sand and calm, crystal clear waters. I stayed at a place called The Palms, which I originally reviewed for Hotel Chatter, but here is the gist of my somewhat bi-polar resort experience:

According to some reviews at Tripadvisor, visitors to The Palms on the island of Providenciales in the British territory of Turks and Caicos are met at the airport by a Cadillac Escalade. Sadly, this was not to be the case for me. Along with a quartet of fellow travelers from the same flight, I was met by a pretty standard looking transport van. It was a nice enough van, but my inner pimp-daddy was sorely disappointed.

The Palms itself is far from disappointing. It is a strikingly beautiful resort; very refined -- there is no bombast or gaudiness to it, just an unmistakable air of quality. Your arrival initiates a thoughtfully designed process: You are dropped at the open air lobby and your bags are whisked away by a porter. You are handed a tasty passion fruit beverage and led on a brief guided tour of the property starting with the elegant and perfectly landscaped courtyard, beyond which is the manor house, a stately colonial mansion of old that now contains the main restaurant, Parallel 23, featuring a patio for alfresco dining and a nice comfy lounge. The five buildings beyond are the residences and you are guided up to you room for your in-room check-in.

The standard rooms are all suite-sized with a balcony (or patio) on which to appreciate the beautiful evenings. There are two bottles of Fiji water and plate full of cookies waiting for you, complimentary. Everything looks fresh, clean and new. More water and treats are delivered with the nightly turn-down. (The profuseness of gratis bottled water is important because the water as it comes out of the tap is gag-inducing; probably desalinated.)

The five residential buildings surround the pool on three sides. The pool is a beauty: formed in a curvaceous, meandering shape that envelops a hot tub and a swim up bar-and-grill eventually ending in infinity. It is nicely appointed with lounge chairs and umbrellas with attendants to raise them. More entertainingly, there are four "pods", or circular day beds, that are the target of fervent attention. They are highly desired but not reservable. You can spot type-A personalities as they dash out of bed bright and early to deposit belongings on them as a territorial claim, and jealously guard them throughout the day because if they are left alone for an undefined length of time the attendants will give them away. Comical how some people escape to paradise then immediately seek out their habitual stress level.

Beyond the pool is the legendary Grace Bay Beach and it is as fabulous as its reputation suggests. A multi-mile long crescent with powdery sand and crystal clear water tinted slightly green and turning a deep turquoise beyond the shallows. The sea is warm, buoyant and calm.

The Palms has it all, and it seems to work extremely well as long as you stay within the resort. Many guests -- perhaps a majority -- will do just that. It's when you have to interact with the outside world that things can get dicey.
I had it in my head to explore the island a bit (and maybe find a less expensive place for dinner) so I stopped at the concierge desk one morning to inquire about a car. They told me a small car could be had for $39/day. Great, I said, I'll stop by after breakfast and finalize arrangements. Of course, it was not to be so simple.

After breakfast I was told that there were no small cars available, but Avis could rent me a jeep for $69/day. I found it strange that in the off-season there was not a small car to be had on the island. I also found it strange that Avis, which typically has a policy of giving you an upgrade for the same price if the car you want is not available, would not then offer me a jeep for the lower price. Neither of these observations seemed to incite any action on the part of the concierge beyond a shrug. I strongly suspected a game of soak the tourist was being played, but my options were to call around the island on my own to see what I could work out or just deal with it. Since I only wanted the car for a day, I chose to just deal with it and asked them to have Avis bring over a jeep for me at 3pm.

Come 3pm, no one from Avis was to be seen, so I checked with the concierge who told me that instead of Avis, they had arranged for my jeep to come from a place with the professional sounding name of Scooter Bob's. Hmmm, I wondered whether they had gotten a better price for me there, but there was no representative from Scooter Bob's there either. Apparently, Scooter Bob just dropped off the jeep and the left the key with the concierge.

It was very surprising to get handed a key without having anyone even check that my license was valid, never mind get a credit card number. The concierge just guessed that Scooter Bob would make arrangements with me when I was done. I was given pause when I noticed the keychain had the word "mayhem" printed on it. I was given yet more pause when I saw the "jeep" -- a clapped-out Geo Tracker, with no rear window, no a/c, a manual transmission, and a nicely lit "check engine" light. The word "mayhem" was printed on the front in stick-on lettering. Luckily, all this shabbiness was offset by the brightly polished chrome wheels that were probably worth more than the entire vehicle.

I had to laugh. It was if someone asked Scooter Bob for a car, and Scooter Bob asked the gangsta wanna-be teenager down the street if he could borrow his ride. At this point I was in roll-with-it mode so I managed to get around for the day in "mayhem" -- it is not a big island and you can't go over 40 mph anyway.

The next day I dropped off the key with the concierge and suggested they have Scooter Bob contact me when they get there to pick it up. The concierge (a different person than the day before) was surprised that they had not taken credit card info from me when they dropped it off. It was my turn to shrug.

I never got a call from the concierge or Scooter Bob. I mentioned it again at checkout the next day, but nobody had heard from Scooter Bob and nobody seemed to feel an urgent need to follow up. I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but my shuttle was leaving and, well, if Scooter Bob was concerned about getting my money, I figured he would ask The Palms to get in touch with me.

Imagine my shock when upon my return I discovered a charge for $79 to my credit card from "Holiday Rentals" which, presumably, is Scooter Bob's legal name.

Now, despite the abysmal incompetence of their concierge staff, it is not technically the fault The Palms if Scooter Bob wants to soak me for the clapped-out piece of crap they referred to as a "jeep". That's for me and Scooter Bob to work out. What is a huge black mark against The Palms is that they gave my credit card information away to a third party without my consent! That is an egregious violation of my privacy and security. I am stunned that a hotel of such seeming quality would do such a thing.

I don't quite know what conclusion to draw on The Palms. The fact is, apart from the rental car fiasco, everything was top notch and I suspect most people would never run into the troubles I did. Reviews from guests tend to be way over to the positive side of the scale. The concierge issues could be chalked up to a garden variety bad service experience that happens from time to time. But I cannot accept them handing out my credit card number without my authorization.

The Palms may be a sweet place, but I'm left with too many open suspicions to be certain of that. Other things equal, I would suggest staying elsewhere.

The resorts seem to be the extent of the usable development. Beyond them, there is one little area on Provo that has the usual touristy crap shops and bars, but in relation to the number of resorts, it is tiny. There are numerous condo and condo-hotel combos in the process of being built on the Eastern end of Provo and, as I understand, on the other islands, but most seem to be "in-process" at this point. No doubt there is a massive time-share bubble in the early stages of expansion. [[update: It didn't take a genius to call this housing bubble early. -- dam]]

For the most part, the islands still exude something of a Caribbean backwater air. People run their little shops, go to church on Sunday, sip their somewhat watery beer and just live it day-to-day like in a Jimmy Buffet song. One guidebook suggested being extra careful on the road when merging into the roundabouts because they were relatively new to the island and the natives weren't all that comfortable with them. There are no stoplights. The cell phone company Digicell was giving away t-shirts by the side of the road and the party they were going to throw to announce their arrival was the talk of the islands.

Provo is far and away the most developed of the islands but even there major shopping areas as marked on maps may turn out to be a packet of four or five shops including a gift shop that went out of business and a little seafood shack with a hand-scrawled sign that says, "Back in 30 minutes" on the door. Like an idiot, I took a Hobie Cat out on the bay one afternoon without a lanyard for my Ray-Bans. Bye-bye Ray-Bans. I swear I spent an hour and a half driving around looking for a little gift shop that had a cheap, $10 pair of sunglasses; the kind of things you find on any corner in most tourist destinations.

Is the island beautiful? Not especially. There are some lush green areas, but it is mostly scrub. The beaches and the water are beautiful. As I think about it, it is easy to draw a ton of comparisons between TCI and Grand Cayman. Both places are of British extraction, but cater almost exclusively to U.S (and Canadian) tourists. Both have one very long and exceedingly beautiful beach around which most of the tourist activity is centered. And both have a main island without any particularly easy way to get to the other islands in the group short of a commuter flight (and when you ask about visiting the other islands, people can't understand why you would want to). It's hard to escape the conclusion that Provo is Grand Cayman ten years ago. And I suspect it is on the same development path. I would take Bermuda over either.

Although there is no reason you wouldn't enjoy yourself, I just can't see a compelling reason to pick TCI over more accessible and less expensive vacation spots (barring a yearning for some specific dive or fishing sites). The resorts are as good as any, so if you just wanted to hang in the resort, you'd be fine. But there are similar vacation spots that are easier to get to and still provide you with that sort of vacation.

For a limited amount of time, you can probably still scare up an off the beaten track trip by staying clear of Provo (maybe venturing over to Grand Turk [[update: Grand Turk is a haven for cruise ships now -- dam]]. The people were unfailingly friendly in that laconic way of Caribbean out-islanders. You can even find gems on Provo, like the Tiki Hut at the Turtle Cove marina, where a medium rare burger is over to the rare side (as it should be) and the fisherman exchange exaggerations at the bar.

I did enjoy my time in TCI, but my gut emotional reaction was one of discomfort. Perhaps because there was so little to explore. I was happy for a couple of days in the resort, but when venturing out there was so little to do and see that I almost felt trapped. (I would have killed for a casino or a good sized hiking trail.)

No doubt it's personal taste. Like I said, TCI is just fine and if you choose to go there you'll likely enjoy yourself. But if you're looking for a tourist center, Grand Cayman or Paradise Island is better. If you're looking for a something more sophisticated, Bermuda can't be beat. If you are looking for something more remote, someplace like the Grenadines are popular -- actually I hear Saba is the hot new off the beaten track Caribbean island. TCI just doesn't stand out enough.