Thar She Blows! Whale Watching in the Northwest

Whale Frank A

Photo courtesy of Frank Alishio. Taken from boat on south side of Camano Island, WA.

 

It’s whale watching time! Each year from March throughout the summer months, the fascination of whale watching begins in Puget Sound.

So where can you spot these gigantic mammals? The gray, a baleen whale, is regularly spotted in the Saratoga Passage and other shallow, muddy beaches around Camano Island. Another baleen whale, the minke, also is seen in Puget Sound.

Baleen whales are identified by horny, elastic material that forms a fringed mesh in their mouth, used for trapping food.

The orca, a toothed whale, is most commonly seen in the waters of the San Juan Islands. One popular place on San Juan Island is Lime Kiln State Park, just 8 miles from Friday Harbor overlooking Haro Strait. This day-use park is the nation’s first whale-watching park.

Orcas, also known as “killer” whales because of their voracious appetite for salmon, porpoise, or even whales, reside in Puget Sound year round but sightings are more common beginning in March.

The orca is not really a whale at all but is the largest member of the dolphin family. However, it is commonly called a whale because of its size and habits. The distinctive black and white orcas are probably the most studied group of marine mammals in the world.

Gray whales, once nearly extinct, have made a remarkable comeback and can be seen making their north-bound migration from March through June. These giants can reach 45 feet in length, compared to the orcas’ 30 feet, and gray whales have a blotchy pattern of light and dark gray coloration.

It is estimated that gray whales consume about seven percent of their body weight each day. Grays feed primarily on bottom-dwelling amphipods (shrimp like animals), clams and worms, and suck up several cubic feet of sediment at a time, filtering it through their baleen plates. They are often seen surfacing with mud streaming from their heads.

The minke whale ranges between 25 and 30 feet long and has dark coloring on its back and small dorsal fin. Because of their coloring, minke whales are often mistaken for female orca. One distinction between them is that the minke travels alone, unlike the female orca who normally travel in groups. Minke whales come to the Puget Sound area during summer time and return to the Pacific Ocean in winter.

What do you watch for when on the lookout for whales? Whether you’re on shore or on a boat, watch for the whale’s blow which consists of vapor, water, or condensation blown into the air up to 12 feet when the whale exhales. Once a blow is located, keep watching. Where you’ve seen one, you’ll see others.

Whales breathe rhythmically and normally follow a pattern of three to five shallow dives in a row followed by a deep dive, to a depth of up to 500 feet. When you see tail flukes come out of the water, it usually means a whale is starting a deep dive. The Orca may stay submerged 3 to 5 minutes while the gray and minke may not surface for 8 to 15 minutes. When whales surface, they blow.

Sometimes whales lift their heads straight out of the water, a maneuver called spyhopping. Some whale experts believe this activity allows the animal to visually find out where it is in relationship to the shoreline.

Another thrilling sight is breaching, when a whale leaps into the air exposing up to three fourths of its body length. The whale then falls on its side or back with a tremendous splash. Whales will sometimes breach several times in a row.

If you’re fortunate enough to be near waters where whales are passing through, enjoy the show. Whale watching is one of the Northwest’s splashiest spectacles.
These giant mammals will give you a show to remember.

For more information on whales, visit www.WhaleResearch.com

Blue: A Special Gift

Group at well GOODI continued to go on trek, sometimes with Sainabou or another auxiliary nurse, sometimes alone. An orderly/driver took me from the Basse Health Center to a distant village where a family lived whose child had been hospitalized. I wanted to call on the family to see how the child was doing and perhaps offer nutrition counseling.

As was so often the case, several people crowded around the Land Rover as we arrived, all talking and laughing and extending their hands to greet us. A man, a leper with badly deformed hands and feet, greeted me. He extended his stub of a hand and I felt no choice but to shake it, quickly realizing, at least hoping, that he was no longer contagious. As I grasped his hand, I saw in his eyes a warmth toward me, a look that I’ll always remember.

A man standing near us left and returned, carrying a live chicken and gave it to me. “Abaraka.” Thank you, he said quietly. I wondered if this man was the leper’s relative, perhaps his brother.

Binta had shown me how to carry a chicken in the crook of my arm and I did so now as I made my follow-up call. No one blinks an eye when someone carries a live chicken, not even the chicken. I named her Blue, for her unique color. She would be a welcomed addition to our flock, adding to our daily egg collection.

We’d heard the expression “pecking order” without realizing its full significance. Mosalif had bought our first four birds all at the same time, so if there was any adjustment, it wasn’t obvious. But when I arrived home from trek and could finally set Blue down, I couldn’t believe the ruckus. The other chickens flew at her, pecking at the poor thing. She defended herself as best she could. Feathers flew, the noise was unbelievable. By nighttime they seemed to have it all sorted out and Blue filed in with the rest of them, at the end of the line. The next morning it was as though she’d lived there all her life.

 

Book Review: Sincerely Yours

Sincerely Yours

Sincerely Yours is a collection of four novellas with a common thread of love.

 

A Moonlight Promise by Laurie Alice Eakes
English born Camilla Renfrew is desperate, not only to find a new life, but to bury the old. She receives a letter from a friend that could answer her prayers. Camilla manages to hitch a ride on Nathaniel Black’s steamboat in her rush to get to Albany to meet her friend. When the steamboat is sabotaged, Camilla and Nathaniel recognize in each other what is important, what true faith is, and how it can shape their lives. A Moonlight Promise is not only a lovely story, it offers an intriguing glimpse of steamboat life on the Hudson River in the early 1800′s.

Lessons in Love by Ann Shorey
It’s 1858 and Merrie Bentley has a secret passion. More than anything, she wants to be a writer. She is of marriageable age and her aunt dutifully tries to fulfill the promise she made to Merrie’s parents that she would encourage the young woman to seek a suitable husband. When Merrie receives a letter addressed to Mr. Bentley, an invitation from a publisher to discuss her work, her joy is shattered. Confident that as a woman she won’t be published, she convinces Colin Thackery, her piano teacher, to act as Mr. Bentley for the meeting. The plan takes an unusual turn and so do social expectations of marrying within one’s station in life. Lessons in Love is a fun read and especially enlightening about social expectations in the mid-1850′s.

One Little Word by Amanda Cabot
Lorraine Caldwell was trained to be the wife of a wealthy man. Her uncle and guardian since her parents’ death has her future husband all picked out. Unfortunately she has no love for the man. When Lorraine receives a letter from her brother asking her to visit him at a resort some distance from New York City, she is thrilled, yet mystified. Arriving at the train station she is met by English-born Jonah Mann, a carousel maker. The purpose for Lorraine’s visit opens her eyes to a new kind of life. Besides the well-drawn characters in One Little Word, the story is enhanced by carousel lore, history and traditions. The story takes place in 1892.

A Saving Grace by Jane Kirkpatrick
Music teacher Grace Hathaway receives two letters in the same envelope. One, a letter from her young godchild, Carolyn, asking for help, the other from an attorney writing on behalf of Carolyn’s caretaker. Carolyn’s mother, a recent widow, is in a sanatarium and cannot be convinced to leave. Grace leaves her teaching position in Oregon’s ranch country and travels to Olalla, a small community on Puget Sound. At the hotel where she stays, Grace is attracted to another guest, Claude Millikan, a pharmacist who is temporarily working at the sanitarium. When she visits the sanatarium she’s appalled by her friend’s condition and the treatment given other patients. Grace devises a ruse to save her friend, but finds herself in danger when her plan backfires. Although fiction, the story is based on a real Olalla sanatarium that operated with questionable medical practices in 1911, when this story is set. A Saving Grace offers interesting views of health and social norms of the era.

Each of the novellas in Sincerely Yours ends with a letter from the author to the reader adding authenticity and interest to the 1800′s and early 1900′s, particularly as they pertain to women’s lives today compared to expectations in the past. The well-crafted collection of stories is highly recommended.

 

A Rare Outing: Gambia’s Stone Circles

Stone CirclesPeter Moore, our friend with the British Medical Research Counsel (MRC) invited us to go with him and Keith, his live-in work partner, to look for the locally famous Stone Circles in the Mid-River Division in what is called the North Bank area. Peter insisted on preparing our picnic lunch, which was a treat for me. We crossed the river at Georgetown, riding on an “arm-strong” ferry, meaning we pulled ourselves across, vehicles and all. The men pitched in, pulling on the cable hand-over-hand. It was actually quite efficient.

Traveling northwest into the bush in Peter’s Land Rover for about twenty miles, we found the Stone Circles near the village of Wassu. These impressive remains are a group of cut laterite, a cementation of sandstone in the shape of posts, arranged in a partial circle. The Stone Circles are believed to have been protection for ancient burial grounds and are reminiscent of Stonehenge in England. Afterwards, we explored the area further, enjoying the luxury of having a vehicle to get around.

We spread a cloth on the ground in the shade of a baobob tree and enjoyed the lunch Peter and Keith had prepared, pâté on good French bread, pickles, canned artichokes and chilled beer. The British do a good job of making meals such as this special. Keith had even made a fruit pudding for dessert.

We found a monument to Mungo Park, not a place but a man, an explorer who searched for the mouth of the Niger River in 1797 and 1805. A plaque commemorates his efforts.

Since we had arrived in The Gambia, the main highway had been under construction and now, nearly two years later, was paved from Banjul to just a few miles from Basse. What used to take seven or eight hours (not counting break-downs) now took about five and a half. As we again crossed the river to return home, we marveled how much faster and more comfortable our trip to Basse was compared to even a few months before.

Peter offered to stop at the market before driving us home, so we could shop. What a treat! We hadn’t bought meat for five months now. Meat was too tough and stringy, but fresh fish was available and we bought lady fish for dinner, just minutes off the canoe, lovely half-inch thick steaks for about the equivalent of seventy-five cents per steak. We replenished our supply of fresh vegetables, including okra, now that Peter had shown me how to fix it.

Keith sidled up to me, trying to look nonchalant. “There’s a woman over there really staring at you.”

“That’s Sainabo, my peanut butter lady. We play this game.”

Keith shrugged and shook his head.

I turned suddenly and caught Sainabo staring. She giggled and, laughing, I made my way to her. I wasn’t prepared with a jar, but she wrapped four balls of peanut butter in a scrap of paper, the usual way it’s sold. Peanut butter–one of our more dependable sources of protein.

We enjoyed our outing, appreciating our good friends and the joy of convenient transportation.

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Book Review: Emily, Alone

Emily AloneStewart O’Nan’s Emily, Alone touched my heart as it follows Emily Maxwell on her final journey, alone. The novel is a sequel to the acclaimed Wish You Were Here.

Now 80, Emily manages to fill her days maintaining the home where she and her late husband raised their children. She hires a few things done, but she has her rigid housekeeping rituals, her music, her garden and her old dog, Rufus.

Emily’s children live a distance from her Philadelphia home, so visits with them and her grandchildren are infrequent. In any event, she finds their relationship as distant as the miles that separate them.

When Arlene, Emily’s best friend and sister-in-law, faints at their favorite breakfast buffet, Emily finds herself without transportation. She dusts off her husband’s old, treasured Oldsmobile, and drives to the hospital where Arlene has been admitted. Emily is intimidated with the huge car, but for now she can’t rely on Arlene for transportation.

Another vehicle sideswipes the car where it’s parked on the street and Emily feels compelled to replace it with a new, smaller car. The new car paves the way toward a new independence. Arlene is discharged from the hospital and now Emily is often the driver for their excursions. She discovers she can go places and do things on her own and she savors these new possibilities.

Emily, Alone follows the daily life of a woman used to an orderly life. The novel goes into the sort of detail that brings Emily into the reader’s world. It’s a rare glimpse into the life of a person in her twilight years with typical anxieties, hopes and frustrations. I found myself holding my breath as Emily braves the freeway by herself to visit the graves of her parents, an errand she feels duty-bound to fulfill.

Emily, Alone isn’t a fast-paced novel with a breath-taking plot. It’s a quiet story of a lovable woman who faces life with dignity, hope and wry, sometimes quirky humor. I loved this story and its humane, intricate details.

From Eggs to the Pot

Chickens JonPicture courtesy of Jon Stevens, Growing Gardens for Life

 

It seemed much of our time and effort at home went into food. The chickens created some work. Using a flashlight at night, when the chickens were subdued and didn’t seem to mind being turned upside down, we examined their cloacae. If it appeared dry and unyielding, the hen was likely past producing eggs. She would soon be in the stew pot.

Bruce tried several slaughtering methods, none worked very satisfactorily. Cutting off their heads left a chicken running around, getting sand in the carcass. Bruce heard that if you held a chicken by its head, gave it a quick jerk, the neck would break, thereby killing the bird, but keeping the body intact, avoiding the macabre running around. I watched as he tried it, watched the chicken again run across the compound without a head. This wasn’t how it was supposed to work. Bruce opened his hand and looked at the head with a startled little face looking up at him.

Bruce finally found a good way to slaughter a bird. He held the chicken, gently stroking her neck, speaking softly and once the hen was lulled, he would quickly slice the neck. It made us sad each and every time, but if the chicken was through giving us eggs, we needed to slaughter her. We couldn’t afford to do otherwise.

Preparing a chicken for cooking is a chore: Gutting, de-feathering, and cutting up the bird, all without the benefit of running water was a sticky messy event, then making the stew. We found local chickens too tough for frying or barbecuing.

A hen will lay an egg without a rooster’s input, so to speak. In order to have chicks, of course, a male has to fertilize an egg. Chickens ovulate every day, but a rooster’s sperm lasts several days so that eggs are fertilized as they are formed. Mating can take place every seven to ten days in order to maintain fertilized eggs.

We had one rooster, George, a gift to me while on trek. George took his role very seriously. Every afternoon when we opened the chickens’ gate to let them forage, George crowded ahead, knocking the hens aside. He then stood at the exit, blocking the way, and nailed each hen as she tried to emerge. It was a noisy business with indignant clucking and lots of flying feathers.

Our other big food effort was growing vegetables. We had fair success with gardening, but that also required a lot of work and constant watering, which meant hand-hauling buckets of water from the well. Sometimes we borrowed a wheelbarrow from the UN shop and collected sheep, donkey and cattle droppings to add to our sandy garden soil.

It all took time and energy.

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Sagebrush: More Than a Weed

Sagebrush 1

At one time I considered sagebrush a sort of useless weed, a wasteland by-product, but since have become fascinated by this important and productive plant and its useful place in a healthy ecosystem.

On a recent trip to central Idaho, we drove for miles on roads winding through sagebrush meadows, a terrain often called prairie or steppe. An attractive roadside sign titled “Wildlife in the Sagebrush Meadow” piqued my interest and when we returned home I delved deeper into the marvels of sagebrush.

Sagebrush comes in a variety of sizes and is a coarse, many-branched, silvery-grey shrub with yellow flowers and silvery-grey foliage. Sagebrush thrives because a long taproot draws water from deep underground. In the meantime, its shallow roots collect scarce rainwater near the surface. Rub a silver-green leaf between your fingers to smell the sagebrush’s distinctive pungent odor, similar to terpentine. Once sagebrush has passed the seedling stage, it can reach ages of more than 100 years. It can grow 2 to 12 feet tall.

Although often too dry to support trees, sagebrush prairies support nest sites and provide cover from wind and predators, harbor food for insect-eating wildlife and provide the main winter food for sage grouse and pronghorn antelope.

Many species of animals call sagebrush “home,” including hundreds of birds, 70 mammals, 23 reptiles and amphibians, 72 spiders and more than 100 insects. Interestingly, pronghorn antelope are the only large herbivores who browse on sagebrush extensively. Some birds, such as sage grouse live nowhere else. These many species are important to the sagebrush ecosystem itself, providing crucial services such as dispersing seeds and preying on insects and rodents. Idaho grows ten different kinds of sagebrush and all provide unique habitat for wildlife prairie dwellers.

In addition, plants and grasses that grow under the sagebrush provide nesting materials and protein-rich insects for birds. Sage grouse depend on mature shrubs for shelter in winter and camouflage nesting sites under the protective canopy of leaves in spring.

Sagebrush habitats across the West have been greatly altered by a century of settlement, livestock grazing, agriculture and weed invasion. With care, these valuable sagebrush prairies can be managed and rejuvenated to enrich habitat for the myriad of wildlife that depend on it.

Here are a few steps that can be taken to preserve sagebrush:

– Eliminate invasive plants, such as cheatgrass that chokes out native sagebrush. Other invasive plants include Russian knapweed, jointed goatgrass, and musk thistle.

– Off-road vehicles, primarily all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) can damage biological soil structure. Their wheels can carry and transport seeds of invasive plants. Regulated areas should be off-limits to such vehicles. In addition ATVs create noise and disturbance to the animals that the sagebrush prairie supports.

– Limit the conversion of sagebrush land to cropland or pasture. Reduce the number of stock allowed to graze the small plants and grasses in sagebrush prairies, and also eliminate grazing May through mid-July to avoid trampling of ground nests and nestlings.

Sagebrush is a rugged plant, but is suffering from human interference. This essential shrub now needs human intervention to protect its vital existence in a healthy ecosystem.

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Book Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of CivilityAmor Towles’ debut novel, Rules of Civility is a captivating period piece that takes place in New York City, particularly in Manhattan. The story begins in 1966 but quickly turns back to New Year’s Eve, 1939.

Kate Kontent and her roommate Eve meet wealthy Tinker Gray at a jazz club on New Year’s Eve. A solid friendship forms and the three of them share many enjoyable times together. An accident abruptly changes their relationship and the direction of their lives.

Kate, who narrates the novel, is at first in a secretarial pool at a successful law firm, but quickly moves on to become a secretary at a trendy magazine. The daughter of a Russian immigrant, she never denies her background and that she is among “the working class,” but finds herself socializing with a privileged group of people (white, rich and sophisticated). Kate, extremely well-read and intelligent, remains grounded, but finds herself involved in the social activities of the well-to-do with their well-kept secrets and expensive life-style.

As we ride along with Kate, we learn about the lives of the New York rich. The book takes place toward the end of the depression and the wealthy portrayed don’t seem to have suffered unduly. It’s an era of surprisingly aimless goals among the rich, smoking, drinking martinis, rarely cooking one’s own meal, living exclusively in apartments, and commuting in cabs or chauffeured limousines. The dialog is fast-paced and witty, the sense of New York rich in detail.

Rules of Civility takes its name after the 110 rules that George Washington crafted during his teenage years, “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.” Towles ends the book with the complete list of rules, often mentioned in the novel as either rules to be followed in a civilized society, or possibly rules no longer relevant. Here’s Washington’s 6th Rule of Civility:

“Sleep not when others Speak, Sit not when others stand, Speak not when you Should hold your Peace, walk not on when others Stop.”

I enjoyed Rules of Civility. I marveled at the differences between New York and the mid-west or west. The novel concentrates on either the very rich and the poor working class. There must have been some “middle class” but this novel does not touch on what most of us recognize as normal. The author’s descriptions of scenes and scenery feel realistic and vibrant. The book gave me a glimpse of an era and place now changed forever. I recommend Rules of Civility and look forward to reading more of this author’s work.

A Trip to Our Future

B&M Termite hillFrom: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

Left: Mary & Bruce standing by a termite hill.

 

Toward the end of our first month in The Gambia, while we were still in training, we took a three-day trip with George Scharffenberger, The Gambia’s Assistant Peace Corps Director, to what would be our assigned village, Mansajang, near the small town of Basse.

A word here about how the Peace Corps operates. Before sending a volunteer to a village, the Peace Corps first talks to the village chief, the Alkala. They determine the need and discuss the work expected of the volunteer and where he or she will live. In Bruce’s case, the UN had determined they would continue the UNICEF well-digging project and Bruce would serve as a mechanical advisor. In my case, the Health Department said they could use a health worker in the Basse area, the closest town to the village of Mansajang. So our visit at this time was expected and many of the details worked out beforehand.

We were excited to see where our future life would be. George picked us up in the Peace Corps’ small Peugeot truck. The first 120 miles were paved, but for the next 125 miles we bumped along on deeply rutted roads with potholes that could easily break a truck’s axle. It was a long, hot drive.

Along the way, we stopped at several volunteer homes so George could deliver their mail. It was interesting to see how they lived. Some lived in round grass-thatched roof huts, but most lived in row houses. These row houses, much nicer than those we saw in the capitol city of Banjul, normally housed two to four families, commonly an extended family. In most, each “apartment” had two rooms, but some only one. I found the row houses much hotter than huts with thatched roofs. Without a ceiling, heat radiates from the corrugated roofs. Some row houses, and huts too, had dirt floors; others had concrete.

We visited the working places of two volunteers, one at a clinic and one at a hospital. As it happened, the volunteers we visited were health workers.

At one point we gave two women volunteers a ride to the next village. We three filled the truck’s small cab, so they sat in the open back of the pickup. The weather had been very dry and clouds of red road dust shrouded the truck. When the two women climbed out, they were covered with red dust. They just laughed and brushed off themselves, and each other, and went on their way.

We had fun traveling with George. His quick sense of humor and his vast knowledge of West African culture impressed us and helped put us at ease. At one point he pulled off the road and pointed to a cone-shaped mound. “Do you know what that is?”

The mound looked solid, was about eight feet tall and about five feet across at its base. We hadn’t a clue.

“A termite hill. They’re as hard as concrete. I knew a fellow who died when his car plowed into one.”

After George pointed them out, we continued to see them in rural areas.

We passed many people walking with loads on their heads, the women often with babies slung on their backs. The men often stopped and waved. Hitching for a ride isn’t done with a thumb, but rather the whole arm extended with a limp hand waving up and down. We picked up two men and gave them rides to the next village.

We were thrilled with the trip. Finally, we saw African life more like what we imagined it would be: family compounds, peaceful village scenes and friendly people. Chickens, goats, sheep, cattle, horses and donkeys grazed near family compounds. Amazingly, the sheep, bred for meat, didn’t have wool coats like in America. It took us awhile to tell the difference between sheep and goats since their coats were so similar. On the road we saw monkeys in trees, swinging from branch to branch and scampering around on the ground, and even saw a troop of baboons.

Finally, we arrived at what was known as the UN (United Nations) Compound. The currant volunteer, Howard, whom Bruce would replace, happened to be downriver at Yundum overseeing equipment repairs, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

We would live in two structures. One, an oblong mud-brick building, about 10 feet wide and 30 feet long, with a corrugated tin roof, had been built by Howard’s predecessor and had three small rooms, one used for cooking, the middle as a dining-living room and the third as a spare bedroom. One of the drawbacks of this structure was that flying insects could easily enter in the space between the top of the wall and the corrugated roof. Just a few steps away stood the second structure, a traditional round hut.

Because travel at night was difficult, UN people coming and going from Banjul to Mansajang needed to have a place to spend the night, so they slept in the oblong house which was already equipped with a bed covered with a mosquito net.

Howard used the round hut as a bedroom, as would we. The large round hut, about twenty feet across, had double-wall construction with perhaps four feet of space between walls, two fully screened doors, and was topped with a cone-shaped grass-thatched roof. We loved the arrangement. Actually, we probably had the best volunteer housing in The Gambia.

Besides our two structures, there were three other huts. A UN project mechanic and his family lived one. The other two were empty but often temporarily housed UN drivers who needed a place to stay for the night. None of the structures in the compound were painted or whitewashed, but were all made of mud-brick smoothed over with a thin layer of concrete.

Everyone in the compound shared one latrine. About one hundred feet from our hut, the latrine had been dug as a practice well. A deep concrete-lined hole, it was actually quite nice by local standards. The few latrines I’d used had dirt surrounding the hole. No outhouse, but krinting, the fencing commonly used consisting of coarsely woven reeds, provided privacy. Naturally, upon arrival, my first stop was to the latrine. One simply squats over the hole, and when I did perhaps 200 flies buzzed out of the hole, banging against me. I shuddered and wondered if I’d ever get used to that.

Krinting also surrounded the entire compound, as in other compounds we’d seen. The fencing provided privacy but its real purpose was to keep roving stock, cattle, sheep and goats, out. Chickens wandered about and I saw no chicken coops. A few sparse patches of grass poked through the sandy soil.

We walked to Bruce’s shop a short distance away, and met a few of the crew who weren’t downriver working on equipment. George left Bruce with them and took me to the home of Sister Roberts, my future boss. After greetings and introductions, George left to visit friends.

I immediately liked Sister Roberts, who was not a Gambian, but from Sierra Leone. The “Sister” title, the equivalent of Registered Nurse (RN), was the result of her training in England. She spoke beautiful English. I would learn more about the details of my job later, but she made it very clear she wanted me to take over record keeping. “Other than that, Mariama, you should do what you want to do. There’s plenty of work.” It felt good to be welcomed and have something solid to work toward.

Bruce didn’t come away with that feeling, however. No one he talked to at the shop seemed to have a grasp of the situation. Those who were knowledgeable were no doubt downriver at Yundum.

This worthwhile upriver trip gave us many insights so that we could prepare with confidence for when it was time to live there.

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Book Review: Matterhorn

Matterhorn

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes is a gripping, gritty account of life as a Marine in Vietnam.

We were torn as a nation over Vietnam. As the war between U.S. backed South Vietnam and U.S.S.R. backed North Vietnam raged, so did the U.S. citizens at home. As far as U.S. Marines were concerned, they had a job to do, a job for which they had been rigorously trained.

Lieutenant Waino Mellas, a young Marine on his first mission, together with his comrades in Bravo Company are dropped into the mountainous jungle of Vietnam with orders to take Matterhorn, a mountain renamed by Americans after the Swiss Alps. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) isn’t their only enemy. The Marines, most of whom are boys in their late teens and early twenties, fight their way through thick, nearly impenetrable jungle, monsoon rain and mud, blood-sucking leeches, jungle rot that seriously infects their skin, immersion foot which can result in amputation, malnutrition, dehydration, diarrhea, and even killed or maimed by tigers. When the company is nearly overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of a highly trained enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw terror of mortal combat.

Luckily, the author has furnished a flowchart of the Chain of Command and principal characters. I found myself referring to that many times to refresh my memory as to names and ranks. Another great aid is a glossary explaining slang, military jargon and technical terms. I’d recommend marking these two sections with sticky-note bookmarks for easy reference. The maps furnished also help to clarify troop locations.

Matterhorn was an eye opener to me. Although I was acutely aware of the Vietnam War, I was unaware of many of the issues and obstacles involved. Now, forty-some years after the war, it’s hard to remember that integration had just recently been introduced into the Marine Corps. Although African Americans kept to themselves during their off-time, in combat they worked in closely-knit units.

Matterhorn was written by a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who turned his own experience into this raw, emotional novel. His honesty is stark and disturbing. Marlantes removes all doubt that many decisions of war are made by ambitious men who use troops to further their own careers. Counts of enemy dead are magnified, of American troops, minimized.

Another disturbing fact is the reality of “friendly fire,” when a fellow warrior is in the way of fire, or mistaken for the enemy. It is a constant nightmare to a combatant who may have been responsible for a comrade’s death or serious injury.

Probably the most disturbing fact is the practice called “fragging,” murdering someone, usually an unpopular officer or sergeant, by throwing a fragmentation grenade into his living quarters or fighting hole. In his glossary, Marlantes states that the Marine Corps had forty-three fragging incidents during the Vietnam War, although not all ended in fatalities.

I was surprised to learn how much liquor was consumed, especially nights before battles. My practical spirit would dictate getting all the rest you can before a huge push, but the mind-set is different among those going into a battle from which they possibly won’t return.

War is hell, of this there is no doubt. It’s a hell that continues on long after the actual battle in the form of life-changing injuries or PTSD and the resultant chronic rages and fear attacks.

I recommend Matterhorn, though it isn’t for everyone. At first I didn’t think it was for me, but I slogged on and was soon “hooked.” The book is a raw, naked look at war and all its blood, filth and exhaustion. It’s also a book about bravery and the bonds of friendship forged in battle. It’s a large book, the paperback version is 608 pages, so plan on spending a block of time reliving the horrors of the Vietnam War. It isn’t all grim–there are humorous, fun parts, too. For sure, it’s a memorable chronicle of war.

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