Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Venus transited the Sun, giving a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see one of the inner planets’ full size and shape. The truth of the matter is that as Venus goes round and round the Sun every year—just like Earth, all that really happened with this transit was that Venus crossed the Sun at an angle where you could clearly see it. So to speak. You needed to either project what’s coming out of your scope onto a piece of paper, or some other flat surface, or put an appropriate filter in front of your scope’s objective lens. We did both.

So, what did we actually see? If you look at Jeff Cowell’s photograph, you can see that Venus is this little, tiny ball in front of the gigantic ball of fire that is the Sun.

Here’s the thing: Earth is the same size as Venus:

Earth - 7,926 miles (12,756 km) in diameter

Venus - 7,521 miles (12,104 km) in diameter

So, by standing in our driveway, and seeing this little tiny planet that is the same size as our planet, live, through our own scope, we got to see just how small our world is.

Well, recently I found out just how small my world is.

To say that there are Mexicans in the eastern part of the City of Los Angeles—referred to as East L.A.—is like pointing out that there are Jews in Brooklyn. My job sends me to East L.A. on a regular basis, whenever a truck sets off the radiation alarms at this facility that receives shipments. The routine is that some truck driver shows up, something inside his truck—that he is unaware of—sets off the radiation alarms, and I get called. When I arrive, I use special equipment—the equivalent of a 1960s laboratory in a device the size of a laptop—to figure out what is inside the truck, where it is, and how radioactive it is. After we determine that everything is okay, I fill out paperwork, and tell them how to proceed. So far, nothing dangerous, life-threatening, etc., has ever shown up at this facility that is hidden in a little pocket neighborhood. That’s okay. If—God forbid—anything dangerous or weird ever should show up, we will respond accordingly.

Two weeks ago I drove up to their office, and decided to park ass-backwards, to hasten my exit when I’m done. The manager came out, and upon seeing the Obama 2012 bumper sticker on the back of the Jeep, he enquired, “You’re a Democrat?”


“I’m a Republican. I like war.”

I stared at him, speechless.

Last week I had to drive over to his facility for the usual reason, and after identifying the isotope in his truck, we sat in his office, studying the truck’s route, in order to figure out who the moron was who put radioactive junk into his truck. If we can figure it out, I can fine them. That’s right: I can write you a ticket, like the cops. I’m the radiation cop and I’ve got the badge to prove it.

So I’m sitting there at Jose’s (his real name) big wooden desk, studying his haircut that may—or may not be a military haircut—and he circles back to last week’s comment about liking war.

He says, “You ever been in the military?”

“Yeah, I was in the Army.”

“Me too. I was in the Balkans.”

Holy shit. That makes sense. He’s a little bit younger than me. I lucked out. I nailed it perfectly: I served after the invasion of Panama, and before the Gulf War. I have never fired a shot in anger, or been in danger of hostile forces shooting me. Him? He must have been in during the late 80s/early 90s.

He doesn’t know that I’m Hungarian, and that I have traveled all over Europe. I flash back to my friend Richard Kostrenic in San Pedro, a Slovene who said 5 years before it happened: “When Tito dies, the country is going to catch on fire. They’ll be at each other’s throats. Richard predicted that Yugoslavia would break up in a bloodbath.

I ask Jose, “Yugoslavia?”

His eyes widen with surprise and he says, “You know where that is?”

“Yeah, dude. I’m Hungarian. I’ve travelled up and down Yugoslavia by train and bus multiple times. When World War One ended, the Serbs went looking for my grandfather, because they wanted to kill him.”

Jose looks down at his feet and replies, “Oh, shit, dude. You know what happened there, right?”

“You mean, like Srebenica?”
“YEAH! Srebenica!!! I was there, man, when it happened!”


     I sat there in that black leather office chair, staring at Jose in his bright yellow safety vest with silver, reflective strips, and his hard hat, that make him look like a construction worker. I stared into his empty, hurt eyes, and then I stared at his short, black hair that is gray along the sides of his head, and saw that he has never gotten rid of his Army haircut. He is permanently stuck in 1995.

     Jose leans back in his office chair and starts talking.

     “I was in the reserves man, in an artillery unit, and we got activated and they assigned us to NATO. Man, I’d never been nowhere in my life, and now I’m in this beautiful country with pine trees and rivers and mountains, and all these people that hate each other. That dude, Slobodan Milosevich? He was an asshole. They shoulda shot his ass. Motherfucker killed women and children. Man, I was 19 years old, and I was digging up the bodies, man. They killed all these women and children. I remember digging in the dirt, and this 5 year old girl’s foot came out of the dirt. Man, it was so small. It didn’t affect me, at the time, man, but now I have a daughter…”

     Jose stops talking. Tears well in his eyes, and he sits there, silently.

     He regains his composure, and continues,

     “Man, it didn’t bother me until I had a kid, you know? Once my daughter was born, I realized what those fuckers did. Bunch of fucking murderers, man. They were like gang members, and it was weird, ‘cause we were like the cops—we couldn’t just go in there: somebody had to call us, and ask us to do something. I hated that, man. I wanted to just go in there, and stop those dudes. They were called the…the…the…”

     “The Skorpions?”

     “Yeah! The Skorpions! They were death squads, man. I hate those motherfuckers, to this day. They almost killed us.”

“What happened?”

     “We got a call, and drove into them. They would just set up a roadblock where-ever, and we were in 3 Humvees, and they had all kinds of trucks and cars set up, and we drove right into their roadblock, and their leader said ‘Come out of the car. Come on, we’re your friends. Give us your guns. We won’t hurt you!’ I didn’t believe him, man. I knew they would kill us, and bury us in the forest, somewhere. I was scared, man. We were seriously fucking outnumbered. I was lucky, man, my platoon sergeant was a CHP from Sacramento. Experienced cop. He told me, ‘Don’t give them your gun. Stay in the car.’ He told them to back off, and let us through, and their leader kept saying, ‘Come out of the car. Give us your guns. We’re your friends.’ So my sergeant pulled the lever on his M-16 and said, ‘Lock and Load!” real loud, and pointed his gun at the Serbs. That CHP cop saved us, man. I owe that Sacramento cop my life. He wasn’t afraid of them, and they knew it. He saved my life, man. But it affected me, man. When I came back, I was fucked up. After I got out (of the Army) I went through my troubles, man. I drank, I kept arguing with everybody. Kaiser told me I needed better help. They said, ‘Wait, you were in the Army, in a war? You need to go to the VA’. So I went to the VA, man, and talked with these dudes who went to Vietnam, and they were like me, man.”

Jose then recounted his drug and alcohol abuse, and how he clawed his way back into the real world, all for the sake of being a father to his little girl—the love of his life. He also told me about how he had been thinking of killing himself, and was driving his car, and was stopped at a red light, and when he said out loud, “God, do you even exist?” a shooting star flashed by, and he took that as a sign from God, and now he’s another one of those ex-Catholics (I don’t know what’s more annoying: ex-smokers, or ex-Catholics) who is a strident follower of some fundamentalist church that knows when the world is going to end, and all of the signs are there in the Bible, blah blah blah…

Normally, when some religious numbnut starts “proving” to me that the Bible has accurately predicted various historical events, along with next week’s winning lotto numbers, I quickly lose my patience, but in this case, I gave Jose a free pass. He deserves it. It’s his way of dealing with PTSD caused by his wartime military service.

As I drove away that morning, I thought about him all the way back to my office. I thought about him at home, that night, when I saw my 2 kids. I also kept thinking about the phenomenal number of Iraq War and Afghanistan veterans out there. Jose is only a few years younger than me, in his late 30s, but what about all of the 21 and 31 year-olds out there? How many 25 year old Mexican ex-Marines and soldiers are there in East L.A., who can’t tell their mom what they saw in Fallujah, or Kandahar?

So, the next time you’re driving your car, and you see some minority dude on the side of the road in boots, jeans, a t-shirt, a day-glow safety vest with silver, metallic reflector strips, and a hard hat, ask yourself who that guy is, and if he’s ever been to Afghanistan.

Or Yugoslavia.


Unknown said...

That is very moving.

I’m reminded of a bumper sticker that I have seen from time to time that says
“No God, No Peace; Know God, Know Peace!”

Your story is reflective of someone who lives that bumper sticker. Living on the “Ball of Confusion” as we do it amazes me that we get anything done. With more than ½ the world population living in poverty and anguish, it amazes me that the other ½ has no real clue about the horrors of war. It is regrettable that war happens. I admire anyone brave enough to put on the uniform and stand up for country. You, used royally, might not be a pro war person, but until all men know peace, by whatever method works for them, there will be stories like Jose’s.

Thanx for sharing.

Unknown said...
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