Thursday, June 30, 2005

Pawnbroker Susi

One of our family is chronically short of money,, so I have become his 'Pawnbroker'. Rather than 'Loan' him money, which he can't repay, I will 'purchase' the Civil War artifacts that he treasures (he finds them in this area) at wholesale prices, labeling them and storing them until he can earn the money to redeem them. Over the years he has sold many of these at a fraction of their value when he needed the money, and deeply regretted it when he was making money. I hope to at least stop that, and maybe he will then sell them the slower, more profitable way.

Latest from Troops

This came in over the transom... I have sanitized it to protect the writer.
Whatever your politics, please send your best to our troops this July 4th.

Subject: Iraq Update

Dear Friends,

And more than four months later, another note. True, I am not the most
faithful correspondent at the best of times, but the way time moves here is
like nothing I have ever experienced. Minutes can last all day, and months
can pass instantly. Not a good excuse for my delay in writing, but there
you have it.

We have gotten into a routine within the brigade where we deploy for six
weeks, return to refit for three, and out again. At my last note, I was
still in Fallujah, tracking unit administration after a frustratingly short
time in actual combat to the north of the city. The day-to-day work of the
unit (any unit) is not especially interesting, but it's worth mentioning
that across the board, our Iraqis impressed all of the Marine and Army units
they worked with. Near the end of the Fallujah deployment, two thirds of
the advisors within the brigade swapped out with a replacement unit, leaving
me as one of the three most experienced advisors here, with less than 60
days in country.

I am not sure how exactly the Army personnel folks decided whom to send on
this mission, the main effort of Iraq war. A guess is that, with Special
Forces being busy right now, they figured one bunch of elderly senior NCOs
is as good as another, so they sent us a bunch of Army Reserve drill
sergeants and basic training instructors. Oddly enough, but for a few
exceptions, our elderly reservists are working out brilliantly. Their age
and maturity have actually worked in their favor (more level headed, less
prone to panic), and many have prior active duty time. At this time, I am
the only Regular Army major assigned to an Iraqi unit at or below division
level. My NCOs make me look positively youthful, and I am the youngest man
on the team, though I am second in charge. Pretty scary, when you consider
the fact that there are NCOs fighting over here who were not born when I
first joined the Army. Well, thankfully none of them are assigned to my
brigade team!

A couple of observations on the Iraqis as we finished our Fallujah mission
and began to redeploy. The brigade commander was dissatisfied with the
performance of one of his battalion commanders, and relieved him. The
battalion commander complained to higher levels, and ended up keeping his
job. The brigade commander was corrected for not seeking guidance from his
higher HQ, despite having a strong case for the dismissal of the officer in
question. The Old Iraqi Army aversion to initiative is not yet dead, even
at the highest levels. This should not, of course, be a surprise-every army
has its politics. To get great generals, we will have to grow them-they
cannot be hired off the street. So, for the time being, we are stuck with
merely good generals, until we can train a new crop. Good should be enough
to get us through, though, especially compared to the opposition.

The Iraqi tendency to narrowly define one's sphere of interest is alive and
well also. An Iraqi house usually has a walled courtyard. Trash is dumped
over the wall-not in my yard, not my issue. Thus, when an Iraqi unit
departs an area, if they are not made to police up after themselves, they
will not do so-none of the "leave it a little better than you found it"
ethos here! When our brigade's main body departed Fallujah, the results
were predictable. Decaying food, filthy uniforms, equipment, etc., all
scattered around the place they had lived. Defies description-I'll show you
the photos if you visit! Easily preventable by an old Iraqi hand, but we
had none at the time. We all learned fast, though. The Iraqis have made
positive strides in this area since Fallujah, as I'll discuss in my next

Back home in Baghdad for three weeks, the Iraqis went on leave, and the US
advisors prepared for Christmas. I had a little tree from my wife and kids,
and several packages from my family. Many of the others had similar setups.
We were all also very happy to receive Christmas cards from an Elementary
School class in Florida. It is wonderful to have the public support we have
been blessed with here! Christmas, and then New Years', passed almost
quietly. On New Years' Eve I was on the roof of my barracks, talking on the
satellite phone, when I was sent scrambling for cover by the sound of a
single incoming 122mm rocket. Part of a second later, I realized it was
actually a red parachute signal flare that one of the British officers from
another unit here had earlier told me he was going to fire off at midnight
in lieu of fireworks. I had heard parachute flares before, but the things
sound different after you've had rockets fired at you! Made for a slightly
elevated heart rate.

After sweeping away the Christmas tinsel and wrapping paper, we packed up
again and went off to Mosul, this time to help secure the town for the
January elections. The elections went quietly for us, thanks in part to
aggressive patrolling beforehand, but we managed a casualty around that time
anyway. A US advisor found a way to shoot himself in the upper arm while
clearing a Soviet pistol he had been carrying, so our higher HQ immediately
issued a blanket prohibition against using "non-standard" weapons. This was
a good move on higher's part-many of the midlevel HQ loafers who almost
never leave the Green Zone were carrying around AK-47s with folding stocks,
and, in at least one case I saw, a 90-round drum magazine. Not sure what
the HQ types meant to convey with their weapons choices (most heavily armed
PowerPoint mechanic in Baghdad?), but the new policy coincided with the
arrival of a shipment of US M4 rifles (shortened M16s) to our brigade
advisors, so I was at last able to swap out the Iraqi Army AK-47 I had been
carrying for five months for a lighter, handier rifle that doesn't draw as
much unwanted attention.

After the election, several of us took a convoy up to Dahuk, a trading town
within the Kurdish part of Iraq. What a difference an involved population
makes! The Kurds have been semi-autonomous since after the 1991 war, and
they have made the most of it! The entire area was secure. For the first
time since arriving in Iraq, we were able to walk in a town without
bulletproof vests, our rifles slung over our shoulders. I window shopped,
bought bread, and ate in a restaurant-luxuries I had not been able to enjoy
since arriving in Iraq. I know that all of us spent much more money than we
had intended. If the rest of Iraq could see Dahuk, this "not shooting at
the Americans" thing could become a trend! I hear the south, Basra and
environs, is the same.

Sadly, it was not a trend in Mosul. After the elections, stepped-up
operations in western Iraq caused a good number of the insurgents in the
Ramadi area to flee towards Mosul, giving us more targets, and more action.
A terrorist sniper scored several good hits on advisors, with one going
between a Marine First Sergeant's flak vest and his back, giving him a scar
across his shoulder blades. An officer was knocked unconscious by a round
that struck his helmet, and a friend of mine was shot in the face and
evacuated to Germany (he's fine-he has been critically injured on and off
duty more times than I can count, always does well). A number of advisors
were also hit by IED ambushes. Luckily, nobody's injuries were fatal.
Still, by the time we left Mosul, we were ready to leave! An officer I met
who had served in the area earlier with the 101st Airborne Division said
that right after the invasion he'd been able to walk the street and buy food
from the local markets, but those days were over by the time I got there.

Mosul was also noteworthy because it snowed while we were there. Many of
our Iraqis from the south and west had never seen snow before, so it was a
nice break from operations and staff work when we made snowmen and tossed
snowballs at one another. For most of us, myself included, if was a brief
chance to be 14 again.

Air power hasn't been particularly important in this war, but when you need
them, they are great to have around. I was with the Iraqi brigadier general
who commands our brigade during a visit from Mosul to Talafar, where we had
a battalion going house-to-house rooting out terrorists. They had hit a
point where they were stalled by one persistent shooter hiding behind a blue
pickup truck. Most of a company had been shooting at him, but just when
they thought they'd killed him and they started to move forward, he would
pop back up and send a few more rounds their way. The battalion senior
advisor got on the radio and learned that there were USMC aircraft nearby,
so he asked them if they could help. They were able to. There was a sudden
roar as the airplane raced to its target, then a loud explosion and black
smoke cloud. No more bad guy, and no damage to the house he was standing
next to. Nobody compares to the US when it comes to putting steel on
target! The brigade commander and I had been observing the fighting from an
elevated position (for a better view), and were taking heavy, but
ineffective fire (enemy small arms fire here is not very accurate). After
the explosion, the rest of the terrorists stopped firing for the day. I
guess they realized they weren't going to be able to top the day's
entertainment from the Marines, so they went home.

Shortly before we left Mosul, I bumped in to two soldiers from my parent
unit, here to observe operations in Iraq so that they will know what their
training focus should be. When I am with a regular unit, I normally have my
head shaved on the sides, and only a little hair on top. Here, to keep from
frightening my Iraqis, I wear my hair in a longish civilian cut, within
regulations, but only just. The haircut threw them off-neither of these
men, one of whom I have pulled jumpmaster duties with several times and the
other of whom had worked for me for the year before I came here, recognized
me. After we got together and they figured out who I was, I took them to
our Iraqi camp and gave them a quick rundown on our training and operations.
Amazing how small the Army can be!

Well, that catches me up through Mosul (end of February). All in all,
things with our Iraqi brigade are proceeding extremely well. Not sure why
the media always finds the weaker Iraqi units to report on, but I can assure
you that the units in the papers are not the whole story, and that my
brigade is not the only one that is reaching our level of professionalism.

Salaam! I will try to get my next note out faster.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Gardening Report

I've got to put up some pictures. The big garden is up about five inches, and the raised beds are doing well. I'm already covered up with squash, but tomatoes aren't red yet. We'll have a bumper crop of everything. We had a big meal with all our own veggies, and a store bought chicken. I still miss my girls.

Bees are OK

The bees are building up or maintaining. I treated the ones that had EFB again, twice. That makes three treatments. Some have recovered and taken off, if the other's don't respond I'll have to do something drastic. I think that the old comb I have is spreading the disease. I'm segregating it for removal.
The woman who came to look at bees is very nice, but probably needs to go into it slowly. She got a little concerned when they started flying. I made sure she didn't get stung... she left, and I finished going through the rest of the hives: one apiary a day. Too many to do in a day, especially these hot days. Yesterday I released a queen that I'd caged because the workers were balling her. I had caged her and joined her small hive with a queenless hive next to it. I released her into the lower, larger hive four days after the join-up.
I need to go back in today and finish the third treatment for the some remaining hives. Thank goodness for my pencil notes on the sides of the hives; writing in a notebook and referring to it is too cumbersome.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Bee Musing

I go into the bees tomorrow with a woman who's got the "Bound to's & Can't help it's" about beekeeping. She really, really, really wants to have bees in her tiny suburban yard. I know how she feels, though. I was the same way and tried to talk myself out of beekeeping for a couple of years. Now I have about 30 hives, more or less. She's due here at 7AM and we'll look into all the hives, checking for queens, joining up the ones that are queenless, supering, and checking on the health of the brood since their bout of AFB. I plan to go into all of them over the next few days... in the cool early mornings. Since our current cool weather has gone.
Most of the splits need to be prepared to go into the winter by adding the supers that they can start storing their honey in.
Some of the larger hives have got some nice honey already and need to have it moved up into the upper box to free up space for the queen to lay in the lower box. I aim for 3 mediums for overwintering as both honey storage and brood box, so now is the time to get them drawing comb for their winter storage. Since I have Russian type bees they winter on much less honey than Italians. They are known for having small clusters and being very cold hardy. Mine seem to build up fairly fast in the spring, and will swarm before they've even filled out their brood box.
And this is the time of year to order next spring's queens from Purvis Bros @ Mountain Honey. I am pleased with the development of the one's I got this spring and will test them by not treating for varroa this fall or next spring. I expect to lose half of my hives and split from them to build up again next year. Of course, I'll feed them the HFCS I held back from last year's order.

Gardening IS exercise!!

I've been so tired that I fall asleep whenever I sit down in this chair to write. Lordy! How did the old-timers survive?
I've set up home base in the garden, taking a cooler and all the comforts of home out each morning and enjoying the birds in the cool air. Then the heat comes creeping up and I'm like the frog in the pot: If I start out cool I won't jump as the surroundings warm up. I keep hoping that I'll get heat tolerant. At least I'm brown as dirt, so it doesn't show anymore. I have a farmer's tan and white feet!
I've had Chris helping me, and without him to do the heavy work the gardens wouldn't be planted. It would be MUCH cheaper to buy our veggies. We've spent a fortune on paying him. Next year I'll be able to start early and get more done myself. I've been up at 6:30-7:00 AM and out asap, and not coming in until 8:00-9:00 PM. I have my bottomless bucket so I don't have to come in much.

The raised bed garden set-up will be semi-permanent, so I won't have to go through this every year. With the raised beds full of good dirt I can just keep adding compost and more good dirt or mulch to keep them going. I will be able to plant in them before the last frost because I can cover them with either frost cloth or plastic.

The two 1/4 acre strips we have plowed up are planted in enough vegetables for us and the whole neighborhood, 19 ninety foot rows: 6 rows of Sweet Corn interplanted with beans: Fordhook Limas & Kentucky Wonder Pole beans, then two rows of watermelon: Sugar Baby and Florida Giants, two rows of cantaloupe, four rows of squash: Summer Golden and Black Beauty Zucchini, one row each of Tenderette string beans, Thorogreen Early Limas and Blue Lake string beans and another Lima bean whose name I forget. It was exhausting to plant in the 95 F heat and it'll be even more exhausting to harvest.

Why do we do this? Atavistic behavior, that's what I think.. Like watching a fire or running water. It touches something deep in us that harkens back to our dirt scrabbling ancestors.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I'll report on the Bees ASAP

KT, the Virginia Bee Inspector, found ONE cell of American Foulbrood in the bees... but you who are knowledgable know there's more... It's everywhere, waiting to pounce on the unexpecting!
I'll report on all of that when I can stop and write.
Thanks to all of you who are logging in. You're encouraging me!

Andrew's African Reports

May 30, 2005

“A Little Girl”

I could have cried when I heard the story. What struck me was the sincerity and the goodness of heart of my favorite teacher, Ma’am Shinwana, when she told me about a girl in her class who had stopped going to school. Keep in mind, as you read, that this teacher is a real exception to the norm. I work with over 60 teachers and there is only one (that I witnessed) whom children have come back to visit after they have left the school – Ma’am Shinwana. Nearly all of my other teachers would have never even noticed that this girl was missing.
Ma’am Shinwana started by telling me how she would normally give old clothes to children in her class whom she could see were very poor. Apparently, there was a girl who had stopped coming to school and Ma’am Shinwana realized that it was because the girl was embarrassed to come any more because she did not have decent clothes. Ma’am Shinwana felt that she should be more willing to buy new clothes for the children in her class so that they are not always wearing old clothes and so that they could also have something new. She, thus, went to the girl’s home and took her to a local dressmaker to have her fitted for a new uniform. It cost R 90 ($15), which Ma’am Shinwana did not mind paying for. She spoke of how excited the child was to be able to come back to school and of how the child was like a new person with a smile on her face every time she walked in the door.
The love that was coming forth from this teacher was so contrary to everything else I experience here from the teachers, and it just washed over me. I thought of how cool it was going to be to hang out in heaven with Ma’am Shinwana.

For a second time the girl was not coming to class and Ma’am Shinwana shared with me how she went to the girl’s home to see what the problem was. Upon going to where the girl stayed, she spoke of her fear of being robbed. She shuttered while recalling the living conditions. She found the parents and other family members smoking marijuana while the girl (a fourth grade learner) was cooking and serving everyone. The excuse given was that there was no teacher at school. Ma’am Shinwana had been away from school for about 10 days on account of the death of her brother in law. I can assure you that culturally a teacher’s absence is absolutely normal and commonplace, and that the family simply preferred to take advantage of the opportunity to have a domestic servant around in the form of their daughter. The situation was rectified and the girl started coming back to school.

A third time the girl ended up absent from school, and a third time Ma’am Shinwana inquired as to what was keeping the child at home. She had been aware that a few weeks ago there had been a death in the girls family (the girl’s aunt) and naturally she would have spent a week away from school…but over two weeks was too excessive, and Ma’am Shinwana confessed to me that the family might not have the money to have had a funeral yet. When I asked why they couldn’t just let the child come to school, I was told that it was probably their custom to keep the girl until the aunt was buried.
Ma’am Shinwana was right. There had not yet been a funeral because the family did not have the R 2,000 necessary to bury the deceased. So the body lay at the morgue and the girl at home. This went on for about three weeks. The day that Ma’am Shinwana was telling me about this story, it just so happened that a girl from a local NGO came to collect data on our orphans and vulnerable children. Ma’am Shinwana used this as an opportunity to get the “social worker” involved, and ultimately it was decided that a meeting should be held with the concerned parties. Two days later a meeting was held with the social worker, myself, Ma’am Shinwana and the Principal, a community leader, and the father of the girl/ brother to the deceased. It was decided that the group of people should go to another local school where a couple of the teachers had experience in dealing with this sort of situation. Ultimately, they were able to get the corpse buried free of charge.
That such a meeting was taking place, was amazing for me to see. I did not even think about how the meeting took two days just to happen, or that that nothing had been done to solve this problem for three weeks. I was just encouraged that the problem was addressed in its own time. In my other life, I would have been horrified that such a thing could go for three weeks without being dealt with, but rather I was reassured by the ultimate solution: the corpse was not allowed to rot. For me that was a sign of hope. Though her schooling will likely change nothing for her, the girl is now back in school and that also is a sign of hope.

May 30, 2005
“An Outreach”

Last month, in April, I helped to organize for a group of University Students to come and visit my schools for an outreach. I had an idea/vision of how everything was going to go, and my vision turned out to be too small for the bigness of what God had planned.
You just never know how many children are going to attend an event like this, and so my expectations ranged from 50 to 150 children. I remembered Saturday Bible Studies where only 5 children came and I remembered more successful events, so I just was not sure what to expect. My expectations, it turned out, had been too limited – over 250 children came. Amazingly all our food needs were met to the “dollar.”
Part of my prayer had been that the teachers would pick up the heart of God for the children. Before the event ever took place, I was struck by the contributions that the teachers made to help make the event successful. There were several things (regarding cooking) that I was not aware that we needed, but I had my key teacher with me and I was certain that Nurse would sort out the missing links. She did. But, for the first time, she did so with the help of the majority of the staff at Dan School. There were teachers who never had anything to do with my Bible Study Group who came on the Saturday just to cook all day for the event. I was shocked and overwhelmed with gratitude. Basically, I had limited my vision of what we could do based on the few teachers whom I knew would be reliable, but other teachers decided to get involved and for the first time they took my vision and made it bigger. You can guess as to how often this has happened before – never. So often it is the other way around…my vision is taken and squashed to the point that I was even hesitant to plan for this event in the first place!
Every teacher there stayed around the whole day and was vital in helping with the games. It had been my desire that my teachers might pick up something from the interaction between the team and the child, for interactive learning just does not happen here. Since this event my teachers have used some of the very games themselves. Just yesterday, I was asked to help set up an obstacle course “just like those other people did.” A real change had taken place in the hearts of the teachers and when someone asked me why I thought this happened now, the answer was a simple one…God.
The effect of the outreach was hardly lost on the children. At a subsequent meeting they sang all of the new songs they had learned and reenacted all of the skits…some of which even I had forgotten about. The children were better then I have ever seen them. And for that day they were free to be children – a freedom our children rarely get!
When lunch was served, I made certain the children ate first, which turned the cultural norm on its head. The children were placed first. The teachers did not even seem to mind having to eat last. They were too busy noticing how much the children were enjoying the meal and being served by their teachers and by the group of white people.
Even now I still hear some of the children at church (where the team also came) singing some of the songs or calling each other names using the names of the clowns.
I’ve tried in my own strength for nearly two years to do many of the things that happened on that Saturday, and have experienced little to no success. In one day God did everything I could have hoped to do and more!

……But God!