Monday, September 28, 2009

Adventures in Europe: Part 1

This picture made me laugh, because it's so me. Ms. Cautious.

So okay, I knew I was in for an adventure when I signed up for this trip. And I knew driving with my cousin in Germany would mean some serious tearing up of the asphalt. After all, Race car driver + S-class Mercedes + Autobahn = Serious speed.

We've already established I'm a bit of a chicken, so had I been driving, we might have reached speeds of up to 150 km/hr. Maybe. But with dear old Mike behind the wheel, we hit over 200 km/hr on several occasions.

You'd think I'd have been white-knuckling it, but I wasn't the least bit nervous. He's a great driver (he really is, and not just because he's my adored cousin--even though he snores), and his reflexes and experience made me feel completely safe in the passenger seat moving at that speed. Never thought I'd say that, but he's probably the only person I would feel comfortable with driving that fast. Plus, the roads were incredibly smooth and the Germans are good drivers. And they always move to the right when you approach them in the fast lane. I know this firsthand, as we came up on more than a few bumpers during our tour!

We arrived in Frankfurt, and immediately took said autobahn for just under four hours (would've taken me at last five and a half) to Fussen for the night. Next day we stopped at Neushwanstein in the south of Germany, and wore big blisters on our feet climbing up the mile long hill to the top. We were both sweating like crazy because we seriously hoofed it, though we're both in good shape. But oh my God, the view. King Ludwig II might have been eccentric, but he sure had an eye for architecture. It's a magical castle set on a hilltop amidst spectacular scenery. Walt Disney reportedly modeled Cinderella's castle after it.

We enjoyed Germany, but I know Mike wished he could have shipped his new Beemer over for a ride. He says he wants to come back next year for Octoberbreast (the name he's given Oktoberfest because of the cleavage shown off to maximum effect by the traditional Dirndl outfits the girls wear), and maybe he'll take an M-3 convertible out so he knows what it feels like to open his baby up on the autobahn.

Had a good time in Munich, and we both dressed up (Mike in Lederhosen and me in my Dirndl) to get into the spirit of things. We only stayed a few hours because it was madness inside the festival (see photo below),
so crowded you could hardly move, but on the whole most people were well behaved.

Now we're in Riga, Latvia, and today learned about the terrible suffering the people experienced under both the Soviet and Nazi (then the Soviets, for the second time) occupations. Makes me even more thankful to be a Canadian. Today's tour was a pointed reminder that we should never take freedom for granted, and that we should always speak out when we see wrong being done. Tyranny starts small, and that's exactly when it needs to be stopped in its tracks.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Why PJs are Awesome

One last post before I embark on my trip (*silent scream*) to highlight the amazing skill set PJs have. These guys are put through the ringer to make sure they have operational capabilities in all terrains and climates on land, air and sea. They are paramedic qualified and must remain so throughout their service. By the end of their training, they can do pretty much everything except major surgery out in the field while under enemy fire. That alone is impressive, but there's more.

PJs are jump qualified in both static line drop and freefall (HALO) jumps. If you don't know what a High Altitude Low Opening jump is, you'll see a snippet of one in the clip to follow. Google it if you want more info, but basically anyone who can perform them has to be nuts. PJs need this capability in order to be dropped in to a target area, and that's when the bulk of their training comes into play. Obviously they're extensively trained in combat and survival tactics, since they frequently operate behind enemy lines or in denied areas.

They attend Combat Diver school. They must pass Underwater Egress training where they're taught how to escape a sinking aircraft (makes me shiver just thinking about it, but if you're interested you can watch the end of The Perfect Storm to see the Nighthawk pilot bailing out of his sinking helo). Then they top it off with a kind of baptism-by-fire apprenticeship where they get their final training while assigned to a team out in the field. Hello gut-check.

All this and much more, for the privilege of wearing the coveted maroon beret and risking their lives to save others. I can't imagine the pay's that great, so let's hope job satisfaction makes up for the deficit. Here's another clip from the Pararescue website, detailing the training and missions a PJ faces. All I know is, I'm glad there are brave men willing to step up and take on this job "so that others may live".

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Darn It...

Shoot. I'm stuck already. My new WIP was off to a great start, and now I'm stuck. I know the black moment and the ending, but have no idea what fills in the rest of the blanks.

That'll teach me not to be so vague in my outlining. I do know better. When I get a detailed outline down the drafting phase goes much smoother. Not to mention quicker! Still getting to know my characters, I guess. And having the book set at Bagram limits what I can do to get my hero and heroine together on the page. Hmmm...

'Course, my writer's block might have something to do with my upcoming trip next week. I've been completely preoccupied with my kids and stealing every last snuggle they'll give me. But today I'm going to drop my little guy off at preshcool and sit in the van with my laptop until he's dismissed so I force myself to get the next chapter done. Time to get out the machete! Got some hacking to do through this novel's jungle.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Pararescue Jumpers

I've just finished reading a good non-fiction book about the battle of Roberts Ridge (Takur Ghar, Afghanistan) in March 2002. It details a SEAL insertion gone wrong that cost the life of SEAL Petty Officer Neil Roberts, which quickly morphs into a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) mission. It involves SEALs, PJs, combat controllers (CCT), Night Stalkers and their crews, Rangers and medics. Among the casualties was 26 year old PJ Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, who was mortally wounded during the mission.

From the pararescue website, I've included a video clip giving an overview of what PJs do. In the entire Department of Defense, the PJs are the only group specifically trained and equipped to go into hostile or denied territory to perform search and rescue missions. They often deploy with an AFSOC Special Tactics team, which would likely include a CCT, weatherman, security forces, etc. But they also respond during civilian humanitarian missions, for example disasters like Hurricane Katrina or mass floods, etc, and all to save people's lives. How can you not love that?

Give this clip a look-see and then you'll know why I find these guys so fascinating.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Leaving On a Jet Plane. I think.

In a couple of weeks I leave on a great adventure. If my heart doesn't give out somewhere over the Atlantic, that is.

Those of you that read my posts know that I'm mortally afraid of flying, so a trip to Europe is going to test my nervous and circulatory systems to their limits. I've been mentally preparing myself to take this on, because I'd dearly love to just get on the damned plane like every other normal person and not be waiting to die every moment of the flight.

A pilot that I know suggested I think of something even more terrifying than getting on a plane. Think of that, he said, and that the moment the plane's door shuts and you take off, you're safe from it.

Huh, I thought. Not a bad idea. And nobody's got an imagination like mine. It's a curse of being a writer, I think. So far, I'm thinking of something apocalyptic like a nuclear or biological strike. That's sufficiently scary for me. As for getting on the plane, I already have my "routine" checklist that I do in my head. Brace yourselves before continuing to read.

Disaster management personnel and special ops soldiers are trained to prepare for catastrophes they might face by worst-casing everything. When something goes wrong, chances are they've already run through a similar scenario and have a plan of action in mind. If there's a job out there that focuses on worst-casing everything, I would be awesome. I do it constantly already, and that's all on my own without any training because I'm a control freak/alarmist, whatever. You get the picture.

Getting on a plane used to be pretty much the same as getting on a bus for me, but since a classmate in high school was the sole survivor of a fatal crash, I can't even think about stepping onto an aircraft without my heart pounding. When I get on a plane now, I look at every passenger to see if they looked sweaty or stressed. They could just be nervous fliers like me, but I've got my eye on them in case they're up to no good ;) Not on my plane, you don't!

That's step number one in my misguided attempt to be able to make myself safer when I'm locked in a metal tube 40,000 feet above the ground. 'Cuz yeah, that'll help.

Two, I memorize how many rows of seats it is to the nearest exit from where I'm sitting, both fore and aft. That way, if there's a fire while we're on the ground and I'm not dead yet, I can touch the rows of seats to count my way to the closest available exit since the smoke will be too thick and black to see anything. Plus, I'll only have seconds to get to the exit and I can't hold my breath for very long.

Three, I memorize how each of the exits nearest me needs to be opened by studying the safety manual. In case I'm the one that gets there first.

Four, I buckle up my belt and clench my sweaty hands together. And then don't talk to me. I'm concentrating on keeping the plane in the air with sheer mental force. So don't expect me to carry on a conversation for more than a few seconds.

In the unlikely event of a hijacking, I've still got a few ideas in mind. I do know some first aid and am pretty knowledgeable about the human body. If the pilots were incapacitated and no one else on board had any flight experience, I know that 121.5 is the emergency frequency on the radio. In a worst-case scenario, I could use this to contact someone (provided I remember my flight number) and get help. I even know what the yoke in the cockpit does and where the switch for the landing gear is. Then I'd pray the plane had the kind of autopilot that could land the aircraft all by itself.

Scared yet? Think I should be medicated all the time and not just when I fly? You might be right!

When we finally land (please God) I always keep my eyes peeled when there are crowds of people around, looking for anything suspicious. Like say, someone wearing a bulky jacket or vest when it's hot out. There's my author brain working, looking for a suicide bomber (your eyebrows are up under your hairline now, aren't they?). At the hotel when I finally arrive, I memorize where the emergency exits are from my room in case there's a fire so I already know which way to go if the power goes out and there's too much smoke to see. I know, freak, right? But I think about that sort of stuff all the time.

The blessing for this trip is that I won't be with my children, which already relieves my mind from having to protect them if anything should go wrong. Plus I'll be taking my laptop. Nothing better to distract me than working on a book, and I'll have at least ten hours on the long flights to accomplish something. Although, it might not be quality work since I plan to be very drugged on Ativan or some other sedative. Hey, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

The last few days of September I'm meeting my dad and stepmom in Riga, Latvia, to continue their trek across Asia and Europe in The Great Cmolik Driving Adventure. You can check out their progress (and mine, until October 8th) here.

Aren't you glad you're not traveling with me? LOL. So everybody, please keep me in your thoughts in the last week of September and first two of October. Pray, flap your arms, whatever. I'd appreciate the help, because it's hell keeping a plane in the air all by myself.