Thursday, August 22, 2013

Boom! Boom! Scoops the American Terrorist

 A couple of days after Wee Scott Bob drew a line in the sand,  I was getting on the morning bus and Scoops was telling a story that I just couldn’t believe.  There had been a fire in his apartment the night before, a suspicious bag found, and a plot to blow up the mosque.  Scoops, this mild mannered surfer kid from Northern California, was suspected of being a terrorist.
 It’s funny.  Any story in the desert is worth telling.  It’s not that there’s no other entertainment here… well, that’s certainly true.  But it’s more about the heightening of senses.  When the landscape is barren and all color is gone.  When the endless earth and sky seem upside-down and one day bleeds into the  next with never a seasonal change save a check on the calendar, then stories are all you have. 
 Like the time Mad Dog was walking to the store and the car full of Saudi boys ran him off the road.  Then they circled back and raced right toward him, one boy leaning all the way out the window trying to whack off his head with a scimitar. 
Mad Dog said later, “He must have thought I was a mailbox.”
 Or the time it rained and flash floods swept through the area and we ran in the dune puddles, leaping and screaming under the street lamps like children at the ocean.  Then in the morning beneath the bridges, the torrential waves lifted the garbage and swept it out to sea.
 There were many stories like that, little instances that a traveler would carry with him for a lifetime, but what happened to Scoops, that was different.  That tells you something about the man and the people that surround him.
 Scoops is one of my best friends in Saudi.  Sure, he’s an American like me.  Yeah, he grew up in a little logging town near the Redwoods and surfed and ran track and played on the basketball team.  We have an easy time of it chatting back and forth.
 When Scoops was seventeen his father who was the town drunk, died face down on a park bench and that’s when Scoops decided it was time to leave home for good.  He packed a bag and hoped a flight to Vietnam and bought a motorcycle and traveled up and down the South China Sea, stopping in Da Nang and Hoi An and all the way to Saigon.  It’s amazing to think a kid at seventeen had that kind of fortitude.  I know, because when I was eighteen, I left to play basketball in China a year before the Tiananmen Square Massacre. 
 Everything about Scoops is original.  He started teaching in Vietnam without a high school diploma, earning his GED online.  Then he did correspondence courses at a community college while continuing to teach in Vietnam and finally graduated from an America college without ever stepping foot on U.S. soil.
 From there he went to Korea where he taught a year and saved money and then to a year teaching in Japan where he fell in love with a little architecture major from the village of Sho-gen who liked his 6 foot 3 wingspan and slow surfer drawl and didn’t mind that his shoulders slouched or that he dragged his feet when shuffling around like a human ice cream scoop.  She especially didn’t mind, that he had dreams of making documentary films.
 So Scoops returned to Vietnam to begin the process of making a movie there.  While motorcycling, down the coast, he’d come into contact with dozens of vets who had returned to Vietnam to live and work as civilians. 
These were U.S. servicemen who had seen the horrors of war, who had committed atrocities in the name of American freedom, and who basically couldn’t live with themselves anymore. So they returned to build hospitals out of mud and become aid workers in the jungle and teachers in thatched huts. 
Scoops began to interview them, to record their stories, to give them a voice.  He said he saw the beauty in these impossible men who had spent years trying to make amends for sins they committed.  Listening to him speak about the project, about the hours of footage he already had, made me absolutely respect and love this guy.
 Of course, genius doesn’t always translate.  When Scoops arrived in Saudi with his scraggily beard and radical ideas, he was quickly labeled by the other teachers. 
“Yo, money got his head screwed on backward,” Flintstone cracked.  “Turn your back on Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam gonna bite you in the butt.”
Mad Irish Dave was more direct, pointing at Scoops’ shaggy head and beard, “He looks like a blood jihadist.”
 So last night when Scoops got back to the compound, he noticed a funny smell in his apartment.  This is a guy who’s been through the fish markets of Chagalchi Pusan and the whore slums of Saigon.  Weird smells aren’t anything new.
But this seemed strange, something inside the walls, something electrical.  So he went down to the main compound office to inquire with Abdullah, the bull-headed manager.  But Abdullah moves for no man, and that particular night Abdullah and all his girth was watching Saudi Arabia vs. Bahrain in soccer and no wild pack of jackals could drive his girth away from the TV.  So Scoops went back to his apartment and decided to come back after evening prayers.
 Later that night Scoops returned still complaining about an apartment smell, but this time the thick headed Abdullah was watching Egyptian soap operas.  You wouldn’t believe how addicting these Egyptian soaps are!  In this particular episode, a poor family has a wretched daughter gathering water with her head uncovered, “Stone her!  Stone her!”  Abdullah cried.
So Scoops looked at Abdullah and Abdullah looked at Scoops.
Nothing.
 So Scoops walks back to sit in his room and wait.   He’s not there five minutes when suddenly the circuit breaker in his apartment explodes.  Flashes of red and orange fire balls are shooting out of his kitchen wall toward the gas oven.  Scoops has only seconds to react, leaping up and racing from the apartment, sprinting down the stairs across the compound, grabbing Abdullah and screaming, “Fire!  Fire!  Fire!”
But Saudi is mounting an attack against Bahrain.  It’s the waning seconds of injury time.  Saudi has a corner kick, the balls goes up…  just as Scoops yanks out the TV cord.
“Fire!” he points at his apartment.  “Fire!”
So with the deliberation of a thousand morning suns, Abdullah slowly rises and begins to make his laboring way toward the door, glancing one last time at the black TV screen with a heavy sigh.
 A few minutes later when they reach the apartment, Abdullah nearly loses his mind.  The whole inside of the kitchen has turned black.  Burnt walls.  The stove is on fire.  The refrigerator is melting like a cube of ice.  Now Abdullah is screaming.  He is praying to Allah. 
“Oh Allah the great!  Oh Allah the most kind!”
But Scoops is looking around.  He finds the main electrical circuit and shuts off the power.  Crisis solved.  The flame burns itself completely out:  Poof!
 Now Scoops is looking at Abdullah and Abdullah is looking at Scoops, and here comes the English.
“Oh my friend… Uh, I didn’t know what you were saying… Uh, I didn’t understand.”
Scoops looks around at his burned up apartment and says, “I need a new place.  Now.”
So Abdulla who will move for no man put Scoops up in a new place.  Only problem is it’s across the compound and there is no one to help.  Abdullah will not budge, and Scoops starts packing and moving by himself.
 Suitcases and boxes of dishes and silverware and the small wooden desk and his camera and computer and one by one they all made the trip, moving a little at a time, making tiny piles of possessions in little islands then moving them gradually inside the new place.   He had to do it this way or the children in the compound would have robbed him blind. 
What Scoops forgot though, was one small leather satchel, which he happened to leave right next to the mosque by accident.  So… while he’s inside his new apartment, here comes the nightly call to prayer and here comes the muslims.  One by one they emerge:  Construction workers who should have finished the exercise room months ago.  The laundry man whose clean clothes come back twice as dirty.  The grocer who scowls each time you buy bread.  The furniture store seller covered in dust.  The porcelain toilet salesman smelling of  Windex. They all came, wrapped in their shawls dragging their sandals… but instead of going into the mosque, they gathered around Scoops’ bag.
 Something is wrong.  Allah most high, something is amiss.  Allah be kind, something is not right.  There next to the mosque, is an unidentified bag.  It must be a bomb.
For over an hour the men surrounded it.   Mohammed thought to poke it with a stick, Basim to cover it with bricks.  Abdul-Azis said a car should be parked beside it in case of detonation… later he came up with the idea of putting an upside-down bathtub over it… this caused lots of talk until it was discovered the toilet salesman had suddenly vanished back home to his Windex and his wife. 
Finally, a decision was made.  Abdullah said it should be opened.
“Open it?  Are you mad?  Are you insane?  It was obviously left here by the American, he is angry because he thinks we tried to burn down his apartment.  This is his revenge.  Have you not seen how angry Americans become?  They invade for no reason.  They commit terrible sins without recourse.”
But Abdullah, who wouldn’t be moved, had the loudest voice.  He called for the little metal toolbox to be brought, and then, with shaky screwdriver in one hand, ball peen hammer in the other, he approached the small leather satchel saying, if he died, he would go straight to paradise, straight to the virgins, straight to Allah.
 Now, at this exact moment, Scoops was in his new apartment getting settled when he suddenly realized the papers he meant to grade were not there.  Racking his brains, he tried to remember where his school bag was.  Then it came to him.  He left it at the mosque. 
So he went down to retrieve it, but when he got there, a large crowed was gathered in a circle staring at the curb. 
Something must be wrong.  A car accident?  A heart attack?  Scoops got closer and closer, putting his hands on men’s shoulders as he passed.  Each man instantly dropping to the ground in fear.  “Allah be merciful.  Allah be sacred.  Allah be…”
“Hey! Scoops bellowed from the center of the group.  “You found my bag!”
A terrible wailing cry came from all the dozens of men in the group.  They leapt to their feet in terror.  They ran in different directions screaming.  Bouncing into one another.  Tripping over their own feet.  Falling and screaming and putting hands up to shield their eyes.
Scoops, undaunted, picked up the satchel and unzipped the top.  “See,” he pulled out the paper contents.  “Homework!  I’ve got papers to grade.”
Abdullah, whose enormous fat frame had not allowed him the privilege of spry escape, lay prostrate on the ground with fingers from each hand jammed into his ears, staring up at Scoops with one squinting eye.
“No Boom!  Boom!”
“No Boom!  Boom!”
Scoops walked back to his new apartment while the men collected themselves and went back into the main office for lemon tea and Egyptian soap operas, and no one spoke of it again.  No one, until now.

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