We’ve been hearing the whispers for some time now — we’re too old. Too slow. Boring and sedate. Out of touch with today’s now generation. And it’s not just our own children saying those things any more, either — literally both of the years since we left France, we’ve received, like, two emails saying we were “no longer very Extreme at all” and “barely even telecommuters.” And, though I must say that it seems extremely suspicious that both of those emails came from addresses like “email@example.com” and “firstname.lastname@example.org,” the point is, nonetheless, well-taken — we needed a pick-me-up. The ol’ proverbial shot in the arm, adrenaline-wise. We needed questionable interrogation tactics, extra-legal status, and a locked-down environment so notorious for these things that it has become synonymous with them, the world over.
Yep. We needed Gitmo.
laying it on a bit thick here, aren’t you?
Well, “needed” might be phrasing it a bit too affirmationally. We didn’t really need Guantanamo Bay so much as we might be willing to accept it in a pinch. You know, if, like, we couldn’t get the visas for the Russian steppes, Bangladeshi slums, or, uh, Stockton, a city that exists expressly to be derided in comparisons like this one.
The lesson here, as always, is to be exceedingly careful with what you’re willing to accept in a pinch. Some things, as it turns out, pinch back. For those of you who are subtext-challenged, I’m referring here to Guantanamo Bay and not those hale and hearty movers hefting Kristanne’s well-traveled childhood piano into a moving truck and sending it on its merry way to Cuba in that picture up there. Those guys, in their identical hoodies, SF Giants caps, Doc Martens shorts, and high-top sneakers, are actually cloned from top-notch moving-man DNA in a test-tube in an undisclosed location in the Salinas Valley and do an excellent job, if I do say so myself.
I do believe I digress. Sorry. It’s a reflex.
so is acid reflux. pal
The back story here is that the Heaton family had already been navigating a fairly epic season of stakes-pulling before the prospect of Cuba even appeared in our headlights like a sun-addled deer with a deathwish. Way back in the dimly recalled days of, err, mid-August, a combination of job uncertainty in Nevada City and exciting opportunities on the coast had us lighting out for Santa Cruz on notice so short that some of our neighbors only realized we were gone several weeks later during one of my some seventy-six thousand U-Haul trips back and forth to get our myriad belongings packed, transported, and/or stored so that renters could take occupancy.
It didn’t seem real at the time and in some ways, it still doesn’t. Perhaps that initial sense of unreality, of being loosed from one’s longtime moorings in Nevada City made it easier to accept what came next. Or, perhaps, as one friend put it, “What the hell is wrong with you?” Thanks, Mom. That helps. Because what came next, after a mere three months in Santa Cruz, was, of course, Cuba.
wait – guantanamo bay is in cuba?
Well, not really Cuba, per se, so much as <salsa>¡la Bahía de Guantánamo, el puerto mas rico del mundo!</salsa>. Is the Spanish and salsa music helping sell it? Does it seem more exotic now? Are you picturing me wiggling my hips in exaggerated Latin dance fashion while you read this? Hmm. Perhaps your browser doesn’t support the <salsa> tag. Or perhaps you’re still mentally reeling from picturing the 48-year-old bald, white guy with the exaggerated Latin hip action. Either way, let’s just be blunt here and break this the heck on down — we were going to (insert expletive here) Gitmo.
As any jihadist worth his 72 virgins will tell you, it’s a long road to Gitmo. For us, the road started several ago when Kristanne first started getting qualified to teach for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS). These are American schools for the children of service people stationed on overseas military bases, of which the US has more than a few. When you submit an application to teach at these schools, you can check the boxes of all the schools where you would accept a teaching position. If you are offered a job at one of the schools whose box you checked and you do not accept, well, it’s black ball time for you, Charlie — you head to the back of the line for any future openings, you definitely do not pass go, and a small army of gnomes with Dick Cheney grimace faces come out and kick you repeatedly in the tuchus while shaking their tiny, gnarled fists at you. The DoDDS employment process is actually a bit surreal.
So, there’s some game theory at work in the application process. Some cold-blooded calculus. As a new teacher, your odds of magically being offered a position at the gloriously scenic middle school in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, pictured there at right, high in the Bavarian Alps, are not particularly good. Sure, check that box, buy that Powerball ticket, but don’t react in slackjawed bewilderment when you somehow don’t get that gig. No, my young, would-be DoDDS padwan, your game will be played out among those cellar-dwelling checkboxes down there at the bottom end of the form. Your game will play out in a toxic, sell-your-soul-at-the-crossroads contest of How Low Will You Go? Would you accept…Bahrain? How about Guam? What Faustian bargain is a bridge too far for you? It feels a bit like one of those Japanese TV game shows that trade in mockery and public humiliation, except in this one, you don’t get stripped to your underwear, doused in whipped cream, and faceslapped with Kobe beefsteaks. No, you just have to go to Gitmo. So, I guess the comparison is not entirely without its parallels.
Once you’ve held your nose and checked the box of the school you least want but will perhaps grudgingly tolerate, it’s a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man truism that, of course, that’s the school that will offer you a job. Which is exactly what happened a mere three months into our move to Santa Cruz — the good folks at WT Sampson High School in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, came calling, offering Kristanne a job teaching all manner of different social studies, up to and including Advanced Socialist Taunting Studies, a course that requires all of the students to wear t-shirts like the one pictured there at left. Incidentally, I can’t wait to buy both this t-shirt and the one from Radio GTMO with the “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard” slogan, both of which are actual, real things.
So, in situations like this, when presented with life-changing opportunities, with — if you will — two roads clearly diverging in Robert Frost’s proverbial yellow wood, I find that it’s best practice to sit quietly and reflect. To ponder what might be the best course of action for heart, soul, family, and, yes, pocketbook. Where will our loftiest aspirations be realized? Where will our noblest purposes be served? What is the sound of one hand clapping and can one hear it in Gitmo?
But that’s just me. Kristanne, on the other hand, packs the dang car, slaps a homemade officeodyssey.com bumper sticker on the tailgate, and pretty much just gits ‘er done. Okay, then. Enough navel-gazing. Let’s go to Gitmo and do some Naval-gazing instead!
I do believe the classic Office Odyssey rules still apply and I am allowed at least one wince-worthy pun per episode. It’s in my contract and everything. And, honestly, with Guantanamo Bay being a US Naval Station, any reader who’s even remotely been paying attention for the last, uh, 15 years KNEW I was going to make the whole “navel/naval” pun earlier rather than later. You’re welcome. You are now free to read on, pun-free, for the remainder of the installment.
alright, get on with it then, chuckletrousers
Truthfully, there was not much reflection that needed to be done. Living overseas, especially in a DoDDS environment has been a goal of ours for years. So, even though Guantanamo Bay was not our first choice of schools, it was still incredibly attractive. It’s sort of like that old “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” adage, except in this case, you share the stars with terrorists in orange jumpsuits on hunger strikes. I may need a better adage here.
In the days and weeks (and weeks) to come, we kept checking in with one another. Were we sure this was the right move? Were we still excited at the prospect instead of filled with the nameless dread that accompanies tax audits, executions, and Billy Joel albums? In every case, the answer was a resounding Yes. And so as the weeks wore on and the forms were filled out, signed, notarized, and scanned, one by one in their uncounted hundreds, our resolve stayed firm. We are, after all, savvy veterans of the French bureaucracy — we know from forms. Incidentally, if you ever need to take an oath in front of a notary like Kristanne is doing there at left, I highly recommend doing it in Santa Cruz. There’s nothing quite like the hilarity of swearing to “defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and then have the notary respond in his best surfer drawl, “Cool, dude.” Cool, indeed, dude. Cool, indeed.
Even the torturous moving process, coming so soon on the heels of our last move from Nevada City to Santa Cruz, found us undaunted, mainly because those aforementioned, lab-born moving dudes pictured near the top of this post did all of it for us. Seriously. All of it. I may never purchase another roll of tape for the rest of my life.
No, the only thing that daunted us were our dang cats, both of whom had to ride in cat carriers in our car all the way from San Francisco to LA, a trip they’d be only too happy to recount for you in excruciating, yowl-ridden detail, if only they weren’t so scarred from the subsequent flights from LA to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Norfolk, and, finally, from Norfolk to Cuba.
Fortunately for us, we were spared the bulk of their endless litany of complaint because they spent the majority of their time down in baggage, a place where I firmly believe they actually have a great time, sipping on catnip martinis and chasing designer laser pointer dots. It’s like a secret kitty club down there, right? Sadly, I was disabused of this rosy perception when some overly strict interpretations of what constitutes a legal cat carrier resulted in both cats needing to occupy a single carrier, on our laps, for the last two legs of the trip. Hell hath no fury like a pet-owning airline agent who’s apparently never seen a duct-taped cardboard box with punched airholes before. Sheesh — it’s a classic.
So, yeah, for those two legs of the trip, we were treated to a solid four hours of KCAT, the radio station that plays All Cat Complaints, All The Time. At top volume. On repeat. Fortunately, it was a tolerant bunch on our flight, from the GIs and base employees heading back “home” to GTMO after Christmas holidays in the states, all the way to the representatives of the “Toes in the Sand” production company, heading to the island from their Florida headquarters to produce the New Years Eve “Headbanger’s Ball” concert taking place over at the Tiki Bar in a couple days. Gitmo is pretty much full of these hilarious contrasts that sound like you’re inventing them from whole cloth…so much so, in fact, that you start to take it for granted. In this case, our new eyes definitely registered the visually amusing juxtaposition of shorn-headed, heavily-muscled GIs and bearded, headbanging music-bizzers. I like to think that we helped bring these disparate groups together by uniting them in their shared hatred of both us and our furshlugginer cats. It’s just a service we provide.
Mercifully for all of us, though, Guantanamo Bay eventually appeared out our unblackened airplane windows, unmistakable in shape yet surprising in size, as you might be able to make out there at right. This is a complicated way of saying that I knew what it was, but it was bigger than I expected. Did I mention I get paid by the word?
The base actually straddles the bay, with the airstrip on the western (leeward) side and most of the base facilities on the eastern (windward) side. When you land, the first thing you notice is that it’s a bit barren here in Guantanamo Bay. It’s in the rain shadow of the Sierra Maestra, a mountain range that sucks up the vast majority of the incoming moisture, so much so that it includes honest-to-goodness, UNESCO-rated rain forests, none of which we can visit unless we brave the minefield outside the perimeter fence. So far, Kristanne has nixed that approach, but I’m working on her. Further bulletins as events warrant. Perhaps we’ll achieve my long-term family goal of becoming a bona-fide International Incident. Dream big, I always say.
Once you’re off the airplane, things take a bit of a summer campy turn, so long as your summer camps were proctored by serious-faced young men and women carrying automatic weapons. There’s no need to get your bags, or anything — those are all ferried across to the windward side for you, where you’ll be able to pick them up in a couple hours. Nah, just get on the big yellow schoolbus with everybody else for the five-minute ride to the ferry landing. Then, take the ferry across to the windward side, where everyone’s parked their cars for two weeks with the windows open and the keys inside to await their return. Seriously — would you steal a car in Gitmo? There’s a fence. And that minefield again. And, believe it or not, a somewhat visible security presence. Because, you know — Gitmo?
With two and a half days of bleary-eyed travel in our rearview mirror, much of these first impressions hazed their way across our consciousness like shared hallucinations. Was that really a giant iguana on the side of the road? Was there really a big McDonalds in “downtown” Gitmo? Was our new, government-issued house really in a suburban development somewhat optimistically named “Nob Hill”? Would the cats’ apparently bionic voiceboxes ever give out? Yup, yup, yup, and no, not now, not ever.
Kristanne’s new principal kindly loaned us a car so we could get around base for our first couple days. Although exhausted upon arrival, we decided to head on down to the Naval Exchange to buy a few necessaries. The Naval Exhange — the “NEX” or commissary in the local parlance — is the end-all and be-all of local commerce. The good news about the NEX is that if it doesn’t have what you need, you really don’t need to go anywhere else looking for it, mainly because there is no “anywhere else.” The bad news, of course, is that it occasionally doesn’t have what you need. And it also carries discount fruitcake baking supplies, as you can see there at right — strike two.
But in all fairness, for being the size it is, the NEX does a remarkably good Target impersonation, carrying a good selection of groceries, clothing, hardware, consumer electronics, and fatigues. What, you’ve never been to Target fatigues section? You can also get your hair cut, rent a car, buy a Subway sandwich, take out a small business loan, or take your choice of a wide variety of Gitmo-themed shot glasses, many of which feature the inimitable “It don’t git mo better than this” tag line. Needless to say, I bought thirty of these. You all now know what you’re getting for Christmas.
Life on a military base is going to be an educational process for this family of civilians, many of which I’ll elaborate on in future installments. Although Kristanne has a leg up on the rest of us by virtue of her childhood years growing up around different overseas US military installations, even she is a little rusty and occasionally forgets which flag to face when which trumpet piece is playing over the loudspeakers that blanket the base. For me, I’m never more than one boneheaded blunder from permanent base exile. That’s actually not all that much different than how I live my life stateside, so I’m somewhat used to it. I did get an object lesson on this topic during our first NEX trip, though. When we pulled up, I was happy to see that there was a prime parking spot waiting for me right in front of the door. Owing to my inheritance of excellent parking luck from my father-in-law, Calvin, this did not particularly surprise me, so I rolled right in, cocksure of my rightful role in the parking universe.
Yeah. Not so much in GTMO. Here in GTMO, we’ve finally found the place where Calvin’s enviable powers no longer apply. Here in GTMO, you need stars on your shoulderboards if you’re going to park in front of pretty much anything except your own house, a lesson Kristanne and the kids were only too happy to point out with a sassy display of wagged fingers and much neener-neener-neenering. Sigh. I’m totally going to get kicked out of this place.
That’s it for this installment from Nob Hill in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or, as we like to call it, “home.” Now that we’ve got you up to date with where we are and why, I have high hopes for shorter, more frequent installments as we get up to speed with island life, Gitmo style. See you next time on the Odyssey!