Tea and Cookies on the Black Sea

“You ever go in here?” the pilot said to his co-pilot.

“Yeah, it scared the shit out of me. It’s waaaaay short and that downslope’s wicked,” the co-pilot answered. “High pucker factor for sure.”

I had to agree. After hundreds of hours of flight time, I’d never been to a loose gravel runway with an upper end on the downslope of a Turkish mountain, the other end wetted by the Black Sea, and so short it was barely long enough to land our airplane. To say the flying was challenging was an understatement. To say it was frightening was too.

Was Food Really Necessary?

The Cold War was on and the Russians were not so far away on their own side of the Black Sea. The Turkish shore sported dozens of listening posts and radar sites and all those listeners and watchers needed food, mail, equipment, and all the other things a modern army needs to wage a tense, non-shooting war. I checked the tie-downs for a few tons of the stuff and wondered whether food really was all that essential.

I finished the checks and climbed up to the flight deck. It was bright and the sun reflected through our greenhouse windows, off the Black Sea. Straight ahead a huge mountain blocked our path. There was a tiny brown slash along the shoreline and I felt a familiar pucker feeling in my butt.

A High Pucker Factor

It really did invoke a high pucker factor.

We began our approach flying up the slope of the mountain and past the runway. The uphill flight produced a slight sense of vertigo as the ground rose to meet us and we climbed to keep it away. Our sense of distance felt odd too. Contrary to the normal physics of sight, the runway seemed smaller as we neared. About a mile past the runway, we made a long, climbing turn and aligned ourselves with the strip.

“OK, just as soon as we touch, we’re going to stand on the brakes and go full reverse,” the pilot said. “Crew, I want everyone strapped in. It’s going to be rough as hell.”

The ground that previously rose up to greet us now fell away more like a takeoff than a landing. To my stomach and inner ear, we had entered a climbing descent. That couldn’t be right, could it? Was I feeling negative Gs or positive? Only the altimeter and accelerometer could tell for sure.

The pilot flared for his landing before we even reached the runway. His goal was to use every last inch of the loose gravel. Our nose seemed frighteningly high as the loose rocks rained against our belly like buckshot at close range.

“REVERSE! BRAKES!,” the pilot yelled.

A Near Dip in the Black Sea

The reversing engines screamed. The airplane bucked and wobbled crazily as gravity threw us into our straps like a devil pushing us toward the lip of a yawning maw. Although the runway was short, it seemed like the noise and tumult went on forever. The Black Sea roared toward us, opening itself for a possibly fatal embrace. Through a side window, I saw a pickup flash by at breakneck speed.

“Shit, that water’s coming up fast. Too fast,” I thought.

Oddly, there was little sense of slowing. We seemed to go straight from a screaming tear down the runway to a full stop. When the pilot pulled the engines out of reverse, the airplane became shockingly quiet and an unnaturally still. The Black Sea lapped placidly a few feet away from our nose, certainly too close to see the line where land met sea.

“OK,” the pilot said, “Let’s get this puppy turned around. Chief, hop out here and walk me around. This is a tight fit.”

A Very Good Day

I let the door down – only a few feet away from the supersonic propeller tips – and hopped out. Taking up a position on the left wing, I began using hand signals to direct the pilot through a turnaround. It was a tight fit, not unlike parallel parking a 175,000 pound car in a tiny Manhattan parking slot. We had to pull forward and then back up several times. I constantly jockeyed away from the screaming propellers so I wouldn’t be blown into an unplanned Black Sea swim.

Once turned, I led the airplane back upslope – like a pooch on a long leash – looking for brush or obstacles the airplane might encounter. With a break to shoo a few lounging goats away, the walk was uneventful. A Navy Commander in civilian clothes met us at the end of the runway. As he and his men loaded their goodies into the pickup truck, an ancient Turkish man and his grandson served the crew sweet Turkish tea and delicate almond cookies. I thought, what a day. The amusement park ride of my life and fine dining – al fresco – on the shores of the Black Sea.

It was a very good day indeed.

A Bible Story

A recent Time magazine cover story raised some interesting questions about the role of the Bible in public education. Although the article wasn’t nearly as skeptical as I would have liked, the premise was interesting – the Bible might be a valuable teaching tool offering valuable insight into why our society is the way it is and why understanding those issues is worthwhile for budding adults.

Although teaching the Bible has been adopted by several public school boards across the country, the story largely focuses on an evangelical Oklahoma religion teacher. Comments from the teacher and her students – including some non-Christians – indicate she is relatively neutral, presenting the Bible as a starting point for discussion and open to other points of view, even those she doesn’t personally agree with. While I applaud the teacher for her intellectual honesty, using the Bible as an educational tool is still bothersome. Many committed atheists – including me – agree that fostering understanding between the religious and irreligious isn’t a bad thing. But, there are many problems with no easy answers.

What About Everyone Else?

While teaching the Bible may indeed foster more discussion and better communications between Christians and non-Christians, it does so in a particularly limited way. The singular focus on Christianity tends to exclude other points of view – Judeo, Islamic, atheistic – no one is presenting their take on the world. If Christianity has much to offer, the same is true for other belief systems. The Bible is a rich work of literature and includes many common sense recommendations for daily living, but so do other religious and irreligious belief systems. The question becomes, what makes the Bible the chosen text?

Many Christians argue that American culture flowed directly from the Christian cultures in Europe. Many of our national trappings – from the Constitution to our money – contain explicit and implicit Christian references and some believe this is what makes the Bible “special”. The country didn’t start from a base of Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists, but from Christian sects – primarily protestant – that fled Europe to escape persecution. That much is true, but that argument doesn’t address the rich native American religions already here, nor the diversification of religion since. We may still be a “Christian” nation, but that’s a rapidly changing condition that suggests the Bible may not be the universal religious text needed for the job of fostering religious understanding.

Trust Is An Issue

Quite frankly, there is an issue of trust too. Over the past decade, evangelical Christians have become more vocal in evangelizing the public square. From bogus Wars on Christmas to hanging the Ten Commandments in every courthouse, they believe the country is literally going to hell in a handbasket and God has chosen them to save us all. In the process, they trample the religious views of those who don’t believe in hell as well as those who picture a God that happens to be different than theirs. This work isn’t done in the spirit of understanding, but as a different – although no less virulent – strain of religious persecution their forefathers fled centuries ago. However, denigrating religion as the universal province of the weak and stupid is every bit as wrong as imposing a personal religious belief system on others and that doesn’t help.

The core issue – as is usually true – is not whether the Bible contains useful knowledge or fosters open discussion (it obviously does), it’s about people believing their way is the only way and being too pigheaded to back down. If our society was as truly inclusive as we like to think, bringing a Bible into class for a rational, sociological discussion would be a no-brainer. So would a discussion on the merits of Islam. So would enlightening others on the benefits of atheism. But, we don’t live in that society. We live in one where distrust, anger, and stubborn pride rules. In many ways, it’s no more advanced than in the days Christians believed Jesus walked the earth. All religionsand atheists too – have much to learn and change. As things stand now, using the Bible as a teaching tool has some promise, but until these thorny problems are addressed, it’s just promise, not reality. Regardless of what you believe, we’re just not ready yet.

Unfortunately, that’s part of what makes us human.

The Ponytail

There are many mysteries in life. Large and small, they appear to us all the time, misty dawns of recognition that our experience is tilted a degree or two out of true. Some of us are lucky enough to unravel a few, but most of us travel to our grave with a heaping portion that we never figured out.

I often ponder the big ones. What’s my purpose in life? Why are some people so cruel? What does it feel like to take your last breath? Who reads this blog, and more puzzling, why do they? However, the most intriguing mysteries are the small, inexplicable things. I like the ones beginning with a queer observation and leading to the luscious meat of a story – unknowable, yet pregnant with possibilities. The suddenness of these mysteries are delicious and the answers not nearly as important as the mental journeys that breath life into them.

The Weirdness Begins

One very early morning I stopped at an ATM. It was drizzling and the streets reflected tail lights and street lights with their asphalt sheen. The windshield wipers tapped a womblike heartbeat and I could just make out my breath in the cool, moist air. My mind was on other things.

I navigated the ATM’s boops and beeps of technology and the robot inside spit some cash into my hand. I began to wonder about the money machine. What did it look like inside? How much cash did it hold? What did its ever-vigilant camera see each day?

I stuffed the cash into my wallet and returned to my car. Along the way, I looked down and saw something straight out of the Twilight Zone. A short, 12-foot walk gave my stock of mysteries a new one I still remember, with pleasure, to this day.

On the sidewalk, next to a deco-urban tree, lay a long, brunette pony tail with a red rubber band still attached. Next to the hair was a gleaming fresh pair of scissors alongside its torn packaging.

I don’t know about you, but this seemed a rather odd occurrence. The discovery slipped my moorings to the mundane mysteries and made me wonder.

What’s Up With That?

The stuff lay directly in the ATM camera’s view. Did someone routinely view the tape and discover the explanation for the emergency barbering? Had it been a robber slicing off his hair as a quick identity change after a bank heist? Perhaps a girlfriend on her way home from the close-by bar, was infuriated with a boyfriend who’d always loved the pony tail – maybe a little too much? Maybe the answer was a Britneyesque breakdown just one step short of a fully shaved head.

My mind struggled to grasp the possible explanations. I thought about the find for several more days, playing out each plot line and thinking to myself that a ponytail laid out on the sidewalk would make a great start for a novel or short story, even if the story went no farther than the ponytail itself.

Taking It to the Grave

So, it remains one of those mysteries I’ll take to my grave. I suppose it’s possible the find had a plausible and reasonable explanation, though I could never think of one. But the oddest thing about the Day of the Ponytail is that I’ve never told it to anyone until now.

I didn’t hide it, at least not in the way people hide UFO reports for fear of ridicule. I just decided to keep it to myself and pull it out occasionally to play with like an old, familiar toy. I’ve often thought about a short story centering on it, but I’ve never written one. It has remained just a personal mystery for nearly 12 years, a landmark on the road to my last breath. I find myself wondering if it will come to me in that split second before I depart this earth, but knowing that even if it does, it’ll remain a mystery I will never have the pleasure of solving.

So, I bequeath this mystery to you. Use it wisely. Take it out in moments of boredom and think of all the possibilities.

Personally, I think it’s a mystery worth knowing, but not ripe for solving.