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Friday, May 25, 2012

More Valuable Than Gold

Greetings readers from all countries, may peace and prosperity be with you and may your children never know fear or hate.

We have been running like a man trying to catch the last bus, all week. No, I didn't ever quite catch it... still much to do and not enough hours in the day to do it all. So why am I writing this? Because, I have learned that I have to do something for me at least once week or lose what's left of my sanity. Simple therapy.

The weather for beautiful downtown Fallon, where the fans cheer for both teams in a soccer match and young people hold the door for people they don't know, will be a slightly soggy mess today. Rain has happened and will be sprinkling all day with a chance of afternoon T-storms. Winds 10 to 20 mph out of the North will make the 60 Fahrenheits feel chilly. We will only get enough precipitation from this rain event to mess up a new car wash, but the plants like it.

Having traveled to many places in the world, I have had the good fortune to experience hospitality where I was told to expect hostility, given welcome where I was told to expect hate, shared food with people who had no extra to give (but would not take no for an answer), and laughed with children who were supposed to fear me.

A smile and a laugh are the only things necessary to walk among strangers. Give respect and get respect. Help a stranger and gain a friend. Do not judge others and accept that different may be better and life can be a great road to travel. "Strangers and foreigners" (my neighbors) taught me these lessons as a young boy in Florida and they have served me well as an adult.

The story selection for today is the promised sequel to last week's tale, which tells what happened to the books we rescued from a watery grave. I hope that you enjoy the read and agree that what we did was a better way to handle disposing of treasured books.

More Valuable than Gold

(Sequel to: "I'm Not Throwing Them Away.” I recommend reading that story first to fully understand this one.)

= = = = =

The books we rescued from a watery grave had to be hidden, but there were only so many places that you could hide twelve hundred pounds of books.  There were many, many more books already occupying the racks (beds) and upright lockers of those involved in “Project Literacy,” (so named by a scrawny kid from Brooklyn) which meant that we needed another safe place.

There were places that could handle the volume but were too damp, or worse, vulnerable to spies who would run to the admiral to gain favor. In order to be able to keep the books safe we split them between locations.

We moved the bags of books from the hangar bay in laundry carts (big rolling hampers) which we had to lift over the knee knockers (walls with openings that held the oval shaped water tight hatches) and roll along the passageways. Perversely enough we went by the admiral’s stateroom and collected his laundry right on top of the books. It just seemed so fitting to do that, like he had personally helped.

One of our best sites (six bags there) was in a boatswain’s space which contained hazardous chemicals and was kept locked up. My personal favorite was the linen supply locker for the admiral and captain’s staterooms. The steward who took care of their rooms was a long-suffering and much-abused young man who insisted upon having “Mutiny on the Bounty” in that bag. It made him laugh every day.

After several close calls, we decided to get as many of the books off the ship as possible at the next port of call which was Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Discussion ensued as to how we could get bags of books off the ship without calling attention to ourselves and getting busted. Carrying sea bags (aka duffel bags) wouldn’t work; they would get inspected. The senior staff actually provided the necessary transportation and didn’t know it.

A helicopter was to be dispatched to Colombo to procure fresh fruit for the Captain’s Mess. In other words, they were going grocery shopping. We could use that mission for our own purposes.

For those who don't know about the Captain's Mess, it was the dining room where the ship’s "royalty" dined with guests (by invitation) and alcohol was consumed regularly. It had its own kitchen, special monogrammed china and silverware, personal chef and serving staff and a climate controlled wine storage unit. They suffered no hardships. Enlisted men only got to work there, never dine with them.

The pilots and AC's (air traffic controllers) aboard the America routinely did favors for each other, so hauling bags and a crew to unload them was no big deal. The arrangements were made and four of our strongest young men rode with the bags while the rest of us rode the liberty boats ashore.

Once in Colombo, we needed to find someplace away from the wanderings of the sailors who would recognize the "U.S.S. America" stamp inside the book covers and talk about it aboard the ship. We drank some tea and talked with locals as we worried about having enough money to rent a vehicle to transport the bags of books.

We soon learned that our worry was completely unfounded. The average income of Sri Lanka workers at that time (1984) was equal to $263 U.S. dollars per year. Our meager supply of cash would go a long way. It was a great eye opener to many of our crew about real financial poverty.

For twenty U.S. dollars we rented a Mercedes lorry and driver to take us to an orphanage school in Ratnapura. That village was about fifty (50) miles inland and a place where no other sailors would go. That would be a safe location for our valuable cargo.

According to a Buddhist monk that we spoke with, the orphanage had no books. That monk was so impressed with our mission that he went with us and worked twice as hard as any one of us. His name, (as best we could decipher his English), was Thic, which cracked us all up because he was so THIN!

Thic would only accept food for his part in our project and stayed on in Ratnapura to help at the orphanage for a while. He wore orange robes and carried only his bowl and prayer beads and a shawl. The young man also had a pair of simple leather sandals that were most often in his hands instead of on his feet. His reasoning was that he did not want to wear them out and then be in need of shoes.

Simplicity and minimalism was the custom of the Tibetan monks who were not based at a monastery and were traveling the country trying to help people. The man had an air of goodness about him that put you instantly at ease. He certainly earned our respect.

We were advised (by our military port briefing) not to go into the interior of Sri Lanka because the rebel Tamil Tigers, (or more properly "The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam") roamed the countryside capturing government officials and holding them for ransom.

Sure enough we did encounter them, but after we showed them the books, they gave us an escort to the orphanage and guaranteed our safe passage back out as well! They approved of educating the children and supported the freedom to learn and read.

I believe that part of the reason for our success with the Tamil faction had to be that we had Thic translating for us. No one could talk with that grinning bald headed skinny guy and come away unhappy. He could make a zombie smile.

Upon arriving in Ratnapura the hired driver introduced us to the Orphanage Master and our favorite monk blessed the bags of books as we unloaded them. The schoolmaster was in shock at even seeing so many bags of books. He started crying when we opened the first bag and I don’t think he had stopped weeping when we left.

They had one old Bible and a couple of German magazines. There was one blackboard in a sad state, and no chalk for it. The kids sat on the floor, or an overturned bucket or crate for school, because they had no desks. You don’t even want to know about the bathroom situation.

We had planned to go to Ratnapura, dump off the books and take off again. We would hurry back to Colombo and the bars and sights we could see there. It took all of about five minutes with the children to change that plan.

Among our little band of book thieves we had many talents and abilities that would serve us well in this situation. While the other looked over the school I went scrounging and scamming with the truck driver (who also was moved to stay and help.)

We quickly “scored” a load of lumber right off of a delivery truck; for which we traded a can of Skol beer. That can of beer was promptly hidden (wrapped in the driver’s shirt) under the seat of the delivery truck (his religion prohibited drinking but not trading.)

There was already some question about which construction site the lumber was destined for (the driver lost his invoice) so no one would know where it went. No wonder things got lost and misdelivered in that part of the world all of the time.

When we told the driver what we were doing with the lumber he got back in his truck and delivered it to the orphanage for us. He also contributed a case of nails to help with the building. The man kept blessing us until it got embarrassing (to me anyway) trying to figure out when we could walk away from him. 

We traded a U.S. Navy issued version of a Boy Scout knife with "USA" engraved on the side for some pipe and roof flashing from a local craftsman. He was undoubtedly able to trade it for many times its value in supplies that he needed. Anything with a USA or America logo or label was worth a fortune in black market trading.

While we were gone a couple of guys repaired the leaking roof and replaced a piece of heavy cardboard that had covered a big hole in a wall. They used a window already in a frame that a neighbor had used as a wall for his chickens. 

To be able do that they first had to repair the chicken coop with a section of wire they found in an empty lot that had sticks in it and had been dragged back up over itself into a snarl, making it basically useless as it was.

My guys straightened it out and removed the debris. That made it serviceable enough to repair the chicken coop, thereby talking the owner out of the piece of a wall and window (likely, it was originally from the same building that was now the school) that he was using to keep his chickens corralled. Some of the shorter boards worked well to finish the window installation and it was ready for painting, if that ever happened.

The neighbors were of different social classes and couldn't touch something from each other's hands, so no interaction was possible. We didn't have to operate under those rules so we could work with both to no harm to the local beliefs. Strange, but it worked out. The locals also had an aversion to saying “no” to the strange Americans, which also worked greatly in our favor.

We used the flashing (gained in the knife trade) to “rat proof” the food storage area. Another piece was shaped into a rain gutter to funnel water into a bucket or barrel to collect fresh water when possible. If there had been a way to solder joints we would have been happier with our efforts.

With the lumber from the truck (beer deal) we were able to build tables and benches for the kids to use in their classroom. One boy told us that the tables were so beautiful that he was going to sleep on them every night. That statement nearly made the carpenters cry.

There was enough plank lumber to build some bookshelves and those actually became a library used by the school and community. In Ratnapura only the very rich residents (the gem stone businessmen and the tea plantation owners) had books written in English. Actually, very few people had books of any kind at all (Americans have no idea how lucky they are.)

We were lucky enough to have a plumber’s son in our crew and using the pipe and a big drum we found he rigged up some running water from the well to the building with a real faucet attached. They still had to hand pump the water up into the drum, but gravity took over from there once it was filled.

We took the tortured blackboard off the wall and discovered that the other side was still as good as new. The next day we sent a big case of chalk out by a truck driver who made that drive daily. We paid him, but he gave the money to the orphanage. Good deeds were contagious it seemed.

It was enlightening, for lack of a better word, to see how people with so little would give up some of what they had to help others. It was a good lesson for those of us who came from a land where so many have so much to be grateful for and don’t even realize it.

That orphanage was a real eye opener for most of the group who had only heard about such places. The repairs that we did only addressed the physical needs of shelter and water in small ways. The questions of food and health care were beyond what we could do in our tiny allotment of time. What the children’s future would hold we could only speculate about.

The place had tremendous impact on one member of our group who was seriously religious. He kept saying over and over, “How can God allow this?” To his credit, he set up a regular donation to that orphanage and has gone back on his own multiple times since that trip to do more work and visit the kids. I know that he made a difference.

The load of books that we delivered to Ratnapura was ten of the twelve bags. We felt that the hundred or so kids of that orphanage would benefit far more from them than the creatures of the deep ocean would have. The other two bags were high-lined across to a supply ship on the condition that they mark out the U.S.S. America stamp and forget where they got them.

Later on we heard via the “grapevine” that the captain of the supply ship followed our example (they knew the story of what we had done.) After his crew had read all of the books they took them ashore in two successive port visits. They spread the books around the places that they could reach, also doing repair work on schools and clinics as they went.

No one ever told the admiral about us not dumping the books or what we did with them, of that I am sure. I did hear about him taking credit for sailors doing volunteer work in port of call communities, which he had nothing to do with.

I was sure then and I am still confident today that my partners in crime were willing to let him strut like the stubby Napoleon that he was. We knew what happened and we were fine with it just like it was. For once ignorance didn’t win.

Project Literacy was the right thing to do and we were proud to have done it. 

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