January 23, 2004

Small Moves

"Small moves, Sparks.... Small moves..."
-- from the movie “Contact”

Organized chaos amidst organized clutter and the distinct sense that somewhere there was a war on.

Driving from the main gate to the mustering area you glance in your side mirror and notice two Apache attack helicopters cruising just above you right down the center line. Very persuasive looking machines. You’re glad they’re on your side and you are on theirs. Just before you park you pass a road sign reading, “Drive Carefully. Tank Crossing.”

The distant reports of cannons and star shells drifting down onto brown scrub-daubed California hills. Around the edge of the parade ground, one unfortunate Marine walks slowly in helmet and flack jacket with a full clip in his rifle. Somewhere nearby dull thuds of .50 caliber machine guns echo off the barracks all day. If you look up from the work, you’ll be comforted to see that fifty yards up the hill is a Taco Bell.

Camp Pendleton. 1st Marine Division. They’re going back to Iraq and they’re training hard. When we gathered at the main gate at 9:00 AM somebody mentioned that they’d read the military was getting short on ammunition. If so, the news hadn’t reached the Marines. They seemed, in the catchphrase of the day, to be “keeping it real.” Everywhere you looked they were training hard.

We weren’t working all that hard really. We were there as a kind of witness. We were there because it’s one thing to say you “support our troops” and quite another to show up and help them with your own hands if only for a day. You put on your Spirit of America tee shirt since every event these days needs a tee shirt to make it real. You slap on your “Spirit of America” baseball cap, an unexpected bonus, and you find a place at one of the tables.

Take a light white cotton bag off the top of a bale of them. In blue lettering it says “Friendship” in English and Farsi bracketing a “Spirit of America” logo. “Friendship” / “America.” This marketing element will be repeated elsewhere all day. It’s a good thing we’re doing but there’s no sense not getting a little propaganda value out of it at the same time. You don't want these things to pass through some distribution point in Iraq and get slapped with an "Allah Cares" sticker. It can happen. We're labelling the elements of the kits as well.

Shake the bag open and drop in a packet of pens, hand it to the left where a box or two of pencils go in. Then down the line for markers, notebooks, and other items that are likely to be thin on the ground in the schools of Iraq. In the afternoon, we’re going to do medical kits.

And there are Frisbees.


Sure thing. We got thousands of Frisbees.

Frisbees, in dump truck quantities, were the backdrop to the day as surely as the cannons and .50 caliber machine guns provided the soundtrack. In several bright colors, each one in the stack had the Friendship logo printed on it. We had more Frisbees than we had bags and a lot of them ended up being bulk-shipped.

Somebody said, “Now we’re bringing in the big guns, we’re attacking with our popular culture.”

A Marine who had been there said, “Or giving them plates.”

Someone else said, “Don’t be too sure. I can imagine a day, say the 2012 Olympics, when the Iraqi Frisbee team podiums for the Frisbee gold.”

“Yeah,” said another, “right after kicking the Berkeley team’s ass.”

Bag, pens, pencils, notebooks, markers, box, container. Bag, pens, pencils, notebooks, markers, box, container. The volunteers and the Marines working next to each other around the tables in the courtyard. T-shirts and camo. All ages, all sizes, men and women. Just standing and stuffing bags with the word ‘Friendship’ on them on a Wednesday morning in Southern California. Some of the volunteers had been there since 6:00 which meant, for those that came down from Los Angeles, up at 4:00 and into the traffic that never sleeps.

It wasn’t a large group. At times there were more Marines assigned to the duty than volunteers. They came, like the Marines, in all shapes and sizes but with a greater spread in their ages. Retired military, techno-nerds, people with family in the military, people who had lost relatives in one or more of our wars. Beards, bangs, boots and Birkenstocks.

And blogs. Always blogs. Blogs had organized this effort, and the bloggers who believed and who could came. Blogs and blogging rose up and fell away in conversation all day long. If you weren’t recognized the question about the name of your blog was offered tentatively lest the person asking hadn’t heard of it or read it lately. Bloggers tacitly recognize that for most the level of notoriety and or circulation of one’s blog can be a sore point or a source of pride. It’s a counter dependent addiction and stature can be inferred from numbers alone. As a result, the subject surfaced and then submerged again as the mantra of bag, pens, pencils, notebooks, markers, box, container continued.

The Marines we worked with, of course, had no idea what blogs were, but they were pleased to have this strange group helping them with this particular duty assignment. And with a couple of officers moving around and keeping the whole process on track the Marines didn’t spend a lot of time in chat.

The Marines were mostly privates and corporals with a few of sergeants sprinkled in. From the very short to the very tall. From the pale and slight to the high-school linebacker. Did I say they were young? They were young in the way that lets you know just how old you’ve become. In a word, kids. Kids whose first job out of high school will be in a war zone.

You know that they’ll be trained as well as they can be trained. You know that they will be equipped as well as they can be equipped and led as well as they can be led. But you still know that there’s a chance that one or more of these Marines standing beside you assembling hostess bags for Iraqi school children will be dead within the year. You don’t mention this. Not to anyone, especially the Marines. Compared to what these Marines are doing it makes the small thing you are doing to seem that much smaller. But you do it just the same because it is what you can do.

Open a bag marked “Friendship” and put in some pens and pencils, maybe a Frisbee, maybe even a small prayer that it will help some other kid half a world away grow up wanting to be like a Marine rather than kill one. Small moves but that’s how a world is changed.

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Posted by Vanderleun at January 23, 2004 8:10 AM | TrackBack
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