Very superstitious

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After two months embedded in Afghanistan and 19 days in a hospital in Kuwait, I was packing to return to the States last week. I was practicing the out-with-the old-in-with -the-new approach.

I threw away nearly everything I’d worn in Afghanistan. My three Hane’s men’s v-neck white t-shirts were irrevocably dirty. I tossed one pair of torn pants and kept the other though they’d grown too big (not a bad thing.) I’d toss them when I could replace them. I’d already lost my favorite wool hat that I purchased at the Farmer’s Market in Newport, Oregon in the fall 2010 when my brother visited me from Germany.

Next, I packed the sweet Donna Karan party dress I’d purchased especially for the !st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment ball. I added a couple new dresses and several pair of new shoes, including a gorgeous pair of Michael Kors heels, again for the ball.  (Thanks to Sarah for the shopping excursions and encouragement to “Just try it on.”) After wearing trousers, dirt and body armor, I was looking forward to putting on heels, skirts and dresses again.

When I had everything packed, I looked in the closet and discovered my sweater. My friend Jeanene had given me the sweater in Oregon a few years ago. I always seem to be in denial about the cold and don’t dress appropriately. She bought it for a few bucks at Good Will.

It’s not an attractive piece of clothing. It’s beige, bulky and tattered with holes. It makes me look eight-months pregnant when I wear it.. But it’s warm, made of a blend of wool and silk. And it was so cold in Afghanistan, I wore it all the time.

I wore it on every patrol under my body armor. At the end of my first month-long embed, Spc. Valerie Cronkhite, a medic and member of the Female Engagement Team, remarked that I’d been lucky. She noted that I’d been out on many missions and traveled significantly in Strykers and helicopters and hadn’t had any contact: no small arms fire, no IEDs. We had returned safely from every trip, every patrol. Her comment stuck with me.

On my second embed, the weather warmed and I continued to wear the sweater…at first, out of habit.

One day at Khenjakak, I was putting on my gear for a patrol with 3rd Platoon, Charlie Co. It was hot. I decided not to wear the sweater. I put the body armor over my t-shirt and left the Khenjakak Resort. I took about three steps and stopped. It didn’t feel right, not wearing the sweater. I didn’t want to risk the run of good fortune–not just for me, but for all the soldiers I was accompanying on patrol. It was a strong impulse…so I turned around, returned to the tent and put on my sweater.

I would not have thought I was superstitious. I remember covering the civil war in Liberia and the soldiers wore “gris-gris,” decorative bands of twisted hemp that they said made them bulletproof and invisible. I thought they were deluded…and dangerous.

I had talked with many soldiers about things they carried and rituals they might observe before patrols. (Inspired by one of my favorite books, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.)

Sgt. Robert Taylor, of 3rd Platoon, C Co., often carried a Vallon and took point on patrols. He repeated a specific prayer he created before every patrol. Spc. Mazzole Singeo, of 3rd Platoon, C. Co., also carried a Vallon. He said he told himself every time that he’d come back safe and he’d bring his soldiers back to their families. And he did.

Soldiers carried photos of their loved ones. One had a locket with his girlfriend’s picture. Another wore a grandmother’s cross. They carried tokens from their loved ones, tucked in a pocket or wore them around their necks.

I carried photos, too. Of my niece and nephew, so I could look at their bright smiles on the dark days. A photo of my mom holding me as a newborn, to feel all that beaming love when I felt alone.

And the sweater, go figure. I could not let go of that sweater. I tried to leave it in Kuwait. At the last minute, I stuffed it in my duffel bag with the body armor. I tried to ditch it in Oregon. Right now it simply feels wrong, ignoble, to abandon the sweater when it had served me so well.

In the end, when it’s came to following in the soldiers’ footsteps in Afghanistan, I became very superstitious. I’m keeping the sweater.

And, of course, I know it’s not the sweater that protected me. Life wrapped her arms around me and blessed me.

And the soldiers of the 1-5  took responsibility for me and shouldered that burden with good humor (most of the time.)

They took me along with them and brought me back, every time.

Thank you.

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On Guard

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Note: I do have photographs to accompany this post. I simply can’t access them on my computer as of Feb. 20, 2012. Check back, please, and I’ll post the photos as soon as I’m able.

At 0500 on Feb. 14, 2012, Sgt. Robert Taylor, 30, from Tampa, Fl., and Pfc. Michael Stein, 23, from Rochester, NY, are one hour into their 0400 to 0800 guard duty in Tower 3 at Khenjakak.

“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Taylor says. “We’ve got a nice romantic Afghanistan night under the moonlight.”

“It’s too cold to get naked,” Taylor says, joking. His breath is visible when he talks.

Joking is one the ways the soldiers pass the time in the tower and keep their minds off the cold. Soldiers from 3rd Platoon, Charlie Co. man Tower 3, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in four-hour shifts.

On a shift a few nights earlier, Taylor gave Pvt. Fred Resende, 20, from Long Island, NY, a brief dance lesson. In the 6-ft. by 8-ft. box on top of the wall that rings the base, Taylor taught Resende the waltz and the two-step.

Anything to pass the time and chase away the cold.

Tonight, Taylor and Stein are layered against the elements.

“One, two, three, four, five on top,” Taylor says, counting the layers of clothing he donned for his shift. “Three down below.”

“Four up top. Three on my legs and a really thick pair of socks,” Stein says.

Though the night is cold, both soldiers agree guard duty is much better than last fall, when they were building their camp.

“It was a lot worse where we were before. This is Club Med,” Stein says. “This place is a lot safer. No grape rows that they (the “bad guys”) can weave in and out of and pop up and shoot at us.”

When Charlie Co. arrived at Khenjakak in September 2011, they had few defenses or facilities.  No gravel.  No reinforced wall. Just three tents. They built their wooden Tactical Operating Center and raised tents to house and serve the platoon soldiers.

“When we took over this compound, we were by ourselves,” Taylor says. “If you weren’t in the guard tower, you were building this place. That strung us out pretty well.”

“Seventy trucks a day with gravel,” Taylor says. “We had to search every one. Very little sleep was had.”

Building the base built strong bonds among the soldiers. And standing guard together strengthens them.

“Sgt. Summers figured it out,” Taylor says. “Of a year of deployment, we’ll spend four months in the tower.”

During the dark hours, they talk.

“Love, sex, women. It’s totally true since the beginning of time,” Taylor says of one of soldiers’ favorite topics of conversation. “You talk about what you’ve done. What you haven’t done. What you’re looking forward to doing.

“You talk about the girl you love,” says Taylor, who proposed to his girlfriend, Liza, on leave. “Or in Stein’s case–finances.”

At 0535, the local muezzin’s voice fills the air with the call to prayer.

“The hardest part is not looking at your watch every 15 minutes,” Taylor says.

At 0600, it’s radio check.

“This is Tower 3. Got you loud and clear.”

“We look forward to radio check,” Stein says. “It means another hour’s gone by.”

They remember training together at NTC at Fort Irwin, Calif. a year ago in February 2011.  Another time when they battled the cold. The platoon got rained on and they had to huddle together to stay warm.

“It was a pile of snakes. Coiled together. Spooning together,” Taylor says, and laughs at the memory. They needed to fight hypothermia with their body heat.

“Our platoon’s been really fortunate with camaraderie. At the end of the day, we’re more of a family than any of the other platoons. And that’s comforting.”

Though they do fight and let off steam.

“Somebody will be in a bad mood. When you’re pissed off, you just kinda go off,” Stein says. And 10 minutes later, the same soldiers are joking and talking like brothers again. “Everybody’s got their own sh*t to worry about.”

In the last few months, the platoon has settled into a life paced by the potential intensity of patrolling and the boredom of guard duty.

“We’ve got ourselves a battle rhythm,” Taylor says. “A squad pulls patrol three days then the other two squads will pull guard.”

Taylor is with second squad; Stein is with third.

With the darkness lifting, Stein lights a cigarette.

“I didn’t smoke till I got here. Marlboro Reds. High test.”

Taylor drinks Standing Rock.

“Tastes horrible but it’s got caffeine.”

Stein looks at his watch. 0637.

“Once it gets brighter, people start moving around. The jackals are starting to go away,” says Stein, who points to two lean jackals trotting across the desert toward the horizon. “Time starts passing quicker.”

And their thoughts turn to food and sleep.

“The last hour’s always the worst cuz you’re anxious to leave.”

At 0700, the sun clears the clouds.

“Food’s all I’m thinking about,” Stein says. “You go back to the basics around here.”

Taylor said he had a tough time on leave when he heard people complain….about traffic, about their jobs, about the weather.

“I walked three klicks with a f*ckin’ mine sweeper looking for IEDs,” Taylor says. That’s what he feels like saying to the folks who complain. He doesn’t.

And then he speaks again: “All of us volunteered. My SAW gunner, he’s 19. He’s watching The Pacific. He said: ‘We’re pussies compared to them.'”

Both soldiers are quick to acknowledge that even a tough night on guard duty or hard times in Panjawa’i are nothing compared to the conditions soldiers endured in Vietnam and WWII.

At 0730, their replacements arrive, a welcome sight and ahead of schedule.

“Breakfast. Then right to my room and climb into bed,” Taylor says. “We’ll get an opportunity to sleep. We’ll get at least four hours off.”

As he and Stein walk across the gravel toward the chow hall, he turns and fires off one more joke before calling it a night.

“I can’t believe I had a woman in the guard toward and I behaved myself.”

Fairbanks Firefighter Fred to the Rescue

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On Monday, I headed to Fred Meyer to buy eggs for the chocolate chip recipe I was making. I’d bought laundry detergent the night before…and failing to make a list, I found myself bright and early on a return trip. It was -35F. Note to self: make a list. Of course, this presupposes that I remember to write down the note to self.

I decided to make the most of the early morning extra trip and I stopped to fill up the tank. While I pumped gas, I blasted the radio–I’d been listening to KUAC‘s report on the Yukon Quest–an NPR driveway moment, sort of. When I tried to start the engine, my battery whined then died. Huh?

I turned to the taxi driver in line behind me. Do you have jumper cables? No, he said as he hustled back to his car, his frozen breath hanging in the air behind him.

On the next aisle, I noticed a gonzo silver Dodge Ram 2500 with a large water tank in the truck bed and a wench on the front end. This guy must have jumper cables.

I asked. He did. After he pulled his truck around to face mine, a station attendant came out and told us we couldn’t jump the car on the cement pad. Huh? Regulations. We’d have to push the car away from the station. OK. Fortunately, my good Samaritan was amenable. The station attendant, the pick-up driver and another man pushed the Suburu Forester off the pad, about 10 yards, first down.

Cheryl Hatch, I said, sticking out my hand as the driver started to hook the cables to the battery. And thank you. Fred. I’m a firefighter.

The battery didn’t respond immediately. He hopped in his truck and pushed the accelerator and the Suburu decided to cooperate.

We drove off, both heading toward the university. I figured he worked at the UAF station, so I walked across campus to offer my thanks and a plate of the fresh-from-the oven chocolate chip cookies, made from the eggs that started the whole morning adventure.

The station chief Todd answered. No, Fred works in the city. I know him. I’ll make sure he gets these.

And just to be extra certain Fred knew how much I appreciated his assistance, I gave him a shout out during my morning conversation with Charlie O’Toole on 970AM KFBX.

If Fred hadn’t jumped to the rescue and jump-started my car, I might not have made the cookies–or my interview with Charlie.

Thank you.

Cool and Cold: Life in Fairbanks in February

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Today I woke at 5:30 a.m. I stay huddled under my down comforter and rolled over to look out my picture frame window. Cassiopeia hung in the dark, clear sky just to the right of my window, about 45 degrees from the horizon.

The nearly-half moon was sinking below the silhouette of bare-branched birch trees that ring my cabin. That’s cool, I thought.

I decided to watch it slip below the horizon; it looked almost like a slice of mandarin, not quite orange enough, though.

I turned on our local NPR station, KUAC. -43F at the airport in Fairbanks. That’s cold, I thought.

For a bit, I read “The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America” by Bill Bryson. He’s the rare author whose writing and descriptions of characters and places can make me laugh out loud.

-43F. I’m not in a hurry to go outside.

I listened to the update on the Yukon Quest.  (Below is a description from the race website.)

At the “top of the world,” in the Yukon and Alaska wilderness of northwestern North America, an epic winter sports event takes place every February, the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Covering 1,000 miles between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska during the depths of the Arctic winter, the Yukon Quest is known for excellence in canine care and fostering the traditions of northern travel by dog sled.

The Yukon Quest has been run every year since 1984 over the 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of rough, sometimes hazardous terrain between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. The Yukon Quest Race Start alternates annually between these two host cities.

On Friday, Brian O’Donoghue, the chair of the UAF Dept. of Journalism, who has competed in the Quest and the Iditarod, mentioned taking some students out to mile marker 101 to witness some of the mushers on the course.

Here’s the e-mail message he sent this morning:

To all,
As of 9 a.m., Neff is likely at least eight -12 hours from Central. The few other teams within driving distance will be hitting Circle, a 6-7 hour drive. Do NOT attempt to intercept Neff at Cochranes Cabin. We don’t know if it’s open this year and IT’S TOO COLD, likely 50 below or more out there. THAT’S THE DANGER ZONE for any traveler, and far too cold for a novice to mess around alone.
If you attempt to drive north today take a friend, food and survival gear. IF you get get stuck, anyplace, do not leave your car unless it’s to wave down a snowplow or passing car. Monday will be a better day to find teams at Mile 101, Central and Circle.
–Brian O’Donoghue

Brian has been good about giving me tips about the perils of winter weather here and how to dress for it. Over the time I’ve been here, I’ve acquired jackets, gloves, boots…even a down SKHOOP skirt (made in Sweden.)

It’s a short distance from my cabin to the outhouse, and I didn’t dress for the journey. Silly not to wear gloves, I quickly realize. The metal hook latch stung my fingers like a needle stick. My face and hands immediately felt the tight sizzle-sting that screams “are you kidding?”

I went back inside and started a fire. For the first time since I arrived in Fairbanks, I put a blanket at the base of the front door to deter some of the cold seeping in. (Even the cold is seeking shelter.)

Despite the cold, it’s a crystalline beauty day. Snow dusting the trees. A bright blue sky. And more than eight hours of daylight today.

It’s cool and it’s cold living in Fairbanks in February.

Out of Practice

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These past five months in Fairbanks, I started noticing that my clothes were getting tighter. This is a problem because I brought a limited amount of clothing to this gig at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I brought three skirts, a few blouses, a pair of blue jeans, a pair of black jeans and some workout clothes. Right now, the only clothes that feel comfortable are the workout clothes…primarily because they give rather than cinch. And mercifully, because working out will be a big part of my weight loss and return to skirts that slip on my hips rather than hug them.

I heard all the usual rationalizations and explanations about how the body naturally adds weight in the winter, especially up here where the winter days become dark, cold and long. I know. I know. I want to have some compassion for my clever body. And I want to fit my clothes.

When the new semester started, I vowed to recover some of my fitness rituals. In Oregon, I walked at least five to seven miles every day. I practiced yoga at least three times a week. I swam with a rigorous group of righteous swimmers twice a week. I shook, shimmied and smiled in a Bollywood dance class twice a week. And I played golf whenever I could with my ladies group at Marysville Golf Course, weather permitting.

At first, I walked the eight miles round trip from my cabin to the campus. On the weekends, I went hiking. Then it got colder. I stopped walking and I found myself unable to muster a yoga practice alone at home.

I was actually craving the rituals of fitness, the feeling of flexibility and the calmness that yoga brings me. I was missing the joy of slicing through the water long and strong for an hour of focused swimming. I missed the meditative contemplation and appreciation of nature that my river walks offered me.

So, I signed up for conditioning swimming three times each week at the Patty Center on campus. My body went into shock when I put on my swimsuit. There, there, I told her, it’s going to get better. You’ll remember your strength. You’ll remember the rhythm. You’ll shed these hitchhiking pounds. I’ll write more in another post about my experiences in swim class. It’s good to be back in the water. And I immediately noticed I’d lost some of my beloved strength and endurance, although I still had my breath.

Back in the water. Swimming. Check.

A colleague…and a dear, sweet woman….Nancy Tarnai, reminded me that the UAF has a yoga club and the members meet every Saturday from 9:30 to 11 a.m. For a $5 fee, I get to experience a different instructor and form of yoga. I’ve been the last two Saturdays. Of course, I instantly noticed that I have a whole lot more tummy in the way when I move into certain postures. Yoga is great for body awareness…and I am all too aware of how mine has changed. Again, I do my best to summon compassion. There, there, sweet body. You were once so strong and flexible and vibrant. You will find your way back. Hush now. Breathe. Be gentle. Be kind.

Back on the mat. Yoga. Check.

Nancy also recommended yoga classes at Infinite Yoga in Fairbanks at the Artisan’s Courtyard, “a community space for the arts and well-being.” She attends a class, “Yin/Yang” with Kara, on Wednesday nights. The yoga studio is staffed by 10 different instructors who offer a variety of classes: yoga core, yogalates, Vinyasa Level 2, healing yoga, hatha, yoga flow. I purchased a new student pass tonight for $55, which allows me to attend as many classes as I want for the next two weeks. What better way to discover all the classes and teachers and jumpstart my practice.

I adored the class tonight with Kara. She is long and lean with a soothing, calm voice. She draws our attention to our breathing and puts us through the paces…at a gentle yet insistent pace.

Again my vicious self-critic noticed how much flexibility I’d lost, how much extra weight I was carrying. I was right next to the mirro and I was not happy with my silhouette.

And yet, I was happy. Happy to have discovered a great yoga class. Happy to have a wonderful new friend, Nancy.

And happy to return to my practice.

As I headed home and to the office to write this post (I’d been nagging myself about how far behind I’d fallen on my blog posts–again, out of practice), I thought about the expression “out of practice.” It fits. Literally, yoga is a practice and I’ve been out of practice.

I then realized that everything can be viewed a practice: photography, writing, relationships. All practices. Sometimes I get out of practice.

No sense in beating myself up. Criticizing myself doesn’t help.

I simply need to start practicing again.

 

 

Dressing with Class for Class in -35F

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Cheryl Hatch poses with her winter gear on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus on Friday, Jan. 21, 2011. Photo by Lynne Snifka/UAF Journalism

Yesterday I celebrated my ability to dress for class with class while staying warm. (It was -38F and the moon was still high in the sky when I left for campus at 7:45 a.m. today.)

I like to wear skirts. I make a point of wearing skirts when I teach. Maintaining my style while maintaining my body heat has proved a challenge.

I arrived in Fairbanks in late August. I slowly began acquiring the clothing I’d need to make it through the winter. Alice Anderson helped me purchase some great gear at an outdoor sale near Anchorage in early fall. I scored a gorgeous red Mountain Hardwear puff jacket for half-price. (This has become my favorite jacket, see the photo above.) I already had a toasty wool/silk cardigan, so the layers for my torso were decent heading into winter.

Next, in September, I scored my lovely rated-to-minus-60F Sorel boots (thanks to my brother, J.) It was no fun walking the eight-miles (RT) to campus in regular shoes, even with wool socks.  As the temperatures dipped and I was prepping for my outdoor wilderness first aid class in November, I bought a pair of Mountain Hardwear leggings (longjohns, there’s some other name like, under layer, that I can never get right.)

I thought I was nearly sartorially set. Yet, as the temperatures dipped to -30F and lower in December, I discovered I’d remained in denial. I walked from my office to the post office in Constitution Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, probably 100 yards, tops. My bare hands were stinging and screaming at me before I’d gone 20 yards. OK. That got my attention.

Not to mention the one time I carried a metal bowl outside the cabin and it literally seared my fingertips, the metal froze that quickly. OK, OK, I believe now.

And I wanted to learn to cross-country ski, so I needed more gear: mittens, snow pants, an undershirt. The Prospector, a great local store, had a sale with 20 percent off all merchandise, so I got a groovy ankle-length down skirt (of course!) made by a Swedish company, SKHOOP, SmartWool underlayer top, some mittens, some SmartWool glove liners and some more SmartWool socks. I was told the liners come in handy when pumping gas–tasks were you need the dexterity–as long as your hands aren’t exposed too long.

Weathering the weather here requires a lot of dressing and undressing, I’ve discovered, especially since I insist on dressing up for class.

I tried wearing my stockings with my Sorel boots. 1) the felt liners in the boots rubbed and pilled my stockings (I discovered this after I’d ruined three pair); 2) my legs would start screaming at me on those same short walks across campus. I tried wearing my heels and stockings and that’s flat-out ludicrous. My feet get cold quickly and the cold streaks up my body; plus, I slip and slide, no traction. Again, pretty silly.

So imagine my delight when I found the right solution (pictured above.) I wear my Sorel boots whenever I go out. I wear my skirt with stockings with the Mountain Hardwear longjohns on top. They keep me warm and prevent the boot liners from rubbing on my stockings. I wear my glove liners, wool hat, silk/wool cardigan and puff jacket. I’m warm and I like the way I look. When I’m in the office or the classroom, I wear my heels and stockings.

It requires many rounds of donning and doffing attire.  And it’s worth it.

Hungry for Light

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Corinna Cook, a student in Northern Studies, stops as she crosses the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus on Wednesday. Dec. 8, 2010, to bask in the light of the mid-afternoon setting sun.

A long, lean band of orange light stretched across campus. A lone student stood still in the middle of it yesterday. Eyes closed, she faced the mid-afternoon setting sun. Her breath frosted as she exhaled. I stopped and watched her. Ah, a kindred spirit.

As I approached to join her, I noticed her eyes were closed. Indeed, a kindred spirit.

“I get hungry for the light,” she said.

A graduate student in Northern Studies, Corrina Cook describes her major as “literary accounts of Alaska.” She was heading to her class in “Narrative Art of Alaska” when she stopped to stand in the stillness, her breath freezing as she exhaled, braving the cold to relish the sunlight.

“How much it reminds me of the ocean. How the water plays the light,” said Cook, who did her undergraduate work in southern California.

“Nobody told me about this place,” she said, of Alaska and its winter light. “The sun scraping along the mountains. This foreign area within sight but not touchable.”

Corinna Cook, a UAF graduate student in Northern Studies, has frozen eyelashes after she stopped for a few minutes to face the sun setting behind the Alaska Range.

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