Category Archives: excerpts

From the Fields to the Garden II: “Killer”

The best new book of the holiday season for MMA and boxing fans is From the Fields to the Garden II: A second chapter in the life story of legendary cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran.

In a few days, I’ll be posting an exclusive interview with Stitch.

Here’s an exciting excerpt from the book — with special thanks to Stitch and co-author Zac Robinson for permission to post it on my blog.


“Killer”

We made our way through Camp Morehead and chatted with almost everyone there. One young man asked me if I ever heard of Danny “Little Red” Lopez, WBC Featherweight champion. Of course I had. “He was a great Latin fighter in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” I said.

Turns out, Danny Lopez was his grandfather. I could see the pride in his eyes knowing that I remembered him. Moments like these are what made our tour special because we were able to give these American Heroes some positive memories.

Another great story while in Bagram happened at the chow hall. I was sitting next to a soldier from Poland. He said, “Stitch, you know, I studied Brazilian jujitsu and that has given me the calming effect to accept death. As I hear these bullets buzzing by me, I tell myself, if I go, I am taking you with me.”

Strong words from a soldier that was there as part of the coalition. I was mesmerized by his comment. What mental strength these soldiers have to have in order to survive in the battlefield.

Another time, Amir, Jake and I were walking around the market on base. A soldier from Croatia recognized us and wanted to take a photo. We took one, and then he turned to Jake and Amir, “No offense to you guys, but I want to take a picture with Stitch.”

I guess he recognized me wrapping the hands and working the corners of Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, the famous MMA fighter from his home country. As we had our arms around each other and ready for a photo, he glanced up at me and said, “I’m not a fighter. I’m a killer.”

I believed him. These soldiers deal with life and death on a regular basis.

By the end of the tour we were all feeling quite important as we flew from base to base in Blackhawks. Our next visit was NKC, which is the home to ISAF. ISAF is a NATO-led security mission. I felt like I was in the movie Blackhawk Down as we closed in on our destination. The compound is located in Kabul. Once again, we flew over the area and I kept my eyes open looking for any unusual movement. I did have the complete confidence in the gunners, but I couldn’t keep myself from scanning the ground.

Our scheduled landing was in the center of a soccer field, and there was a game going on as the choppers approached. The athletes ran to a safe place before the two Blackhawks landed and blew dust everywhere.

When we approached the field, armed guards rushed to their positions and ushered us into a safe place where we would meet and greet with soldiers who came to support us.

I’d wrapped so many hands by now, but I saved enough tape and gauze to wrap the hands of a couple soldiers who had covered our backs throughout the tour. It was my way of showing them my respect and appreciation for taking care of us.

One was Major Hood, a man who took pride in his uniform and was the one who made things happen for us. He always kept a stern face, so I made it my goal to make him smile. I gave him the knockout wrap, and we posed for a picture with both of us smiling.

Working with so many fighters in the past, I have learned how to read their eyes. Eyes say everything! Sergeant Perkins was one of these fighters. He’d been with us during the whole tour. He had seen me wrap dozens of soldiers’ hands. He walked up to me with his M-16 hanging over his shoulder. “Can I ask you a question,” he sheepishly asked.

I knew what he wanted and beat him to the punch. I stopped him in the middle of his question. “I would be honored to wrap your hands.”

I did wrap his hands, and this became one of those special memories from my trip. These two soldiers gave us everything they had and that was a small way for me to thank them.

We finished the stay at ISAF when the staff ran flags up the pole. Each flag was used during a combat mission. Together, we folded them in military style and then they were gifted to us as a token of their appreciation.

It was such an honor to receive the flags.

The Blackhawks had arrived earlier than scheduled to pick us up and take us back to Bagram. The fear of being parked too long in the middle of the soccer field was a major concern because of incoming mortars. We had to cut our tour short and rush to the two Blackhawks.

As we ran towards the choppers, it was dark and all the lights were off. Despite being there for over a week, from time to time I still slipped into civilian mode. We strapped in, and during the lift off I decided I wanted to take a photo of the gunner manning his 50-caliber machine gun. I realized that our tour was basically over, and I think a part of me wanted to hold onto it. I gave it no thought and made a huge mistake by taking the photo. Both gunners had their night vision goggles on. The flash screwed up their night vision. Though I could not see his eyes, his body language said it all.

The lights were off because of the fear of having incoming directed at the two choppers. At that moment I recognized what a dumb thing I just did. I’d screwed up their vision for a few moments, and even worse, I could have given our position away. With my headphones on and listening to Santana, I just sat there like a little kid, punished for screwing up. Thankfully, we were able to fly out of there without incident.

“Explosion”

Another incredible part of our trip was when we got to meet USMC four-star General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Dunford who at the time was Commandant of the Marine Corps International Security Force. As of writing, he is Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff. You don’t get much higher than that.

He was at Camp Phoenix for a ceremony where the base was changing hands from one General to another. Security was extremely high because of all the dignitaries present. I could see guards on rooftops and around the perimeter of the event.

After the ceremony, we were invited to meet the General. At the party, there was a long line of officers waiting to meet him. We picked a place to wait, loaded our plates with food, and chatted with some of the guests.

Soon we were escorted to the front of the line where we met and talked to General Dunford. Our presence there meant so much to the troops’ morale that the General thanked us personally for taking the time to visit. We finished by taking pictures with him and many others.

During our three-day stay at Camp Phoenix, we had a chance to relax a bit, see the base, and spend time with the troops. Goze also managed to get enough of a strong signal to host MMAJunkie live. I’m sure it’s the only MMA show to ever be live from Camp Phoenix.

On our last day in Bagram, we had some free time. While Jake was shopping at the market by the entrance to the base, there was a huge car explosion. Jake ran back to meet with us near the bunkers, and said he felt the blast and the tin roofs of the market were shaking and rattling.

Sergeant Perkins and his team immediately assembled. They were the first responders and quickly reported to the scene. It turned out that the explosion had killed something like ten people. It doesn’t make sense to me. One moment people are walking around shopping, and the next they are killed in an explosion. It just isn’t fair.

We were relieved to see the team come back safe. We asked Sergeant Perkins what happened. He simply replied with, “The Special Forces have neutralized the situation.”

I don’t know what that exactly meant, but knowing the capability of the Special Forces I understood that it didn’t look good for the bad guys.

We had met some wonderful people on our tour, and our sendoff was an unexpected surprise. A group of supporters that we had hung out with had set up a festive area leading up to the flight line with lights and music. They had learned that I was a big Santana fan, so they had his music playing in the background. We hugged everyone that came to say good-bye and thanked them for having such a wonderful time.

With flak vest and helmets on, we boarded the C-17 with hundreds of soldiers who had finished their tours in Afghanistan, and headed back to Manas. We were proud to be flying home with these heroes and looking forward to our two beers and watching the Cain Velasquez/Junior Dos Santos fight with them.

We all assembled at the main Rec Center/bar to see the fights. It was a festive night as the soldiers enjoyed their two beers.

UFC 166 was held at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, and transmitted to all the Armed Forces worldwide. What a night of fights. The one that stole the show was Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez. I’d worked with both fighters, so I knew it was going to be a barnburner, and it was. Gilbert won the decision in an all-out battle. After that, Daniel Cormier took a decision over Roy Nelson setting up the main event.

That fight left no question that Cain Velasquez was indeed a true Mexican warrior. He stopped Dos Santos in a grueling fight that had Cain connecting on 274 total strikes to Junior’s 62. The punishment that Dos Santos took was hard to watch as his face turned into a swollen mess.

It was a huge win for Cain, as it was almost two years earlier when dos Santos had taken the belt from him at Fox’s debut event in Anaheim.

It was a high-energy night that we finished by taking pictures with the soldiers. It was a nice way to end our trip.

After eleven days on tour, we would be returning home with a new respect for the men and women in uniform. They sacrifice their lives so that we can live in a free nation.

Months later, our newfound friend and now brother, Jim “Silverback” Mahurin, attended our annual MMAJunkie gathering in Las Vegas. With approval from Lieutenant Colonel Moses, he surprised George, Goze, and I with a (CIB) Combat Infantryman’s Badge that is worn by soldiers who have seen combat. In front of all the MMAJunkie family, we proudly received our pins. Along with my Autism pin, I proudly wear my CIB pin on my cornerman jacket in honor of the men and women we met and all the men and women who fight for our country.

***

Use this Amazon affiliate link to pre-order From the Fields to the Garden II for Kindle.

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Stitch Duran: From the Fields to the Garden II — contents revealed

UFC fans around the world were shocked with the news last year that Stitch Duran — the cutman synonymous with UFC and MMA — would no longer be working its promotions. Now fight fans the world over finally can read behind the scenes what really happened — along with many more incredible stories that have taken place since the successful debut of his first memoir From the Fields to the Garden five years ago.

I’ll be posting an excerpt from the new book along with interviews with Stitch and co-author Zac Robinson in the coming days — and quite possibly I’ll give away some free copies of the new book. We’re less than two weeks until From the Fields to the Garden II!

Check out the full contents of Stitch’s upcoming book — and let the speculation begin …


Foreword

The Call

Reminiscing

A Changing of the Guard

MMA 

Anderson Silva 

Cain Velasquez 

Shogun vs. Hendo 

Hero 

An Empty Seat 

Native 101 

Photo: Teotihuacan 

Invicta FC 

Photo: Bec Hyatt 

Boxing 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Part One 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Part Two 

Royalty 

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Part Three 

Andre Ward 

The Klitschkos 

The Hyatt 

Behind the Scenes 

Leon Tabbs 

Burt Watson 

Huitzi Mata 

Photo: Huitzi Mata 

Emanuel Steward 

Marc Ratner 

Photo: Don House, Rob Monroe, Leon Tabbs 

Show Business 

Here Comes the Boom 

Creed 

Rocky 

Latin Legends 

Giving Back 

Photo: Planada 

Photo: 86ers 

Supporting the Troops 

On the Way to Afghanistan 

Down Range Gear 

Photo: Flak Jackets 

Bad Mofos 

Killer 

Photo: Afghanistan 

Explosion 

Armed Forces Entertainment 

The Reebok Deal 

The Middleman 

Growth? 

Fight Week 

Support 

A New Beginning 

WSOF and Bellator 

Options 

Rizin 

Fighters First 

Photo: Scott Coker 

Final Chapter 

Meeting Stitch 

Zac Robinson 

Mark Laws 

Josh Hiser 

Kurt Daniels 

Stefan Schott 

Michael Schmidt 

Paco Estrada 

Michelle Irwin

Stitch’s Top Lists 

Top Five Favorite Fights 

Top Five Worst Cuts 

Top Three Scariest Knockouts 

Top Three Fighters You’d Want on Your Side in a Street Fight 

Top Three Funniest Fighters 

Top Three Favorite Fight Venues 

Top Five Favorite Cities 

Top Three Tips for Long Flights 

Top Three Favorite Musicians 

Top Three Favorite Sports Movies 

Top Three Favorite Movies 

Top Three Favorite Sports Teams

About the Authors 

STITCH DURAN is regarded as the best cutman in the business. His first book is available on Amazon.

ZAC ROBINSON is the author of many MMA and baseball books. You can find them all by visiting the Zac Robinson Amazon author page.

The Rainy Season: “give me money and I will teach your student”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Ask Uncle Google for “Korean Peninsula at night” and you get eerie satellite images that show South Korea all lit up while North Korea sits in the dark, literally. Jakarta has that same feel. Central Jakarta is lit up and vibrant, but the third ring is dark and even the air feels thick, heavy and desperate.

Indira warned, “This place is not safe.”

I thought, in general or only—

“For everyone. Muslims also,” she said, apparently reading my mind.

“Any radicalized madrasahs?”

“A few.”

“Wallach’s driver should be picking him up right now. It’s not too late. Make a phone call. Get him dropped off.”

“Oh come on Mr. Strange, how do you know I am not doing that to you?”

I glimpsed the Monas in the distance. It was built to memorialize a hard-fought war for independence, but here on a decaying street littered with rubbish it seemed impossibly far away. On this street the people were still at war.

The motorbike hit a pothole and we nearly found out who was right. God or Allah.

“Sorry,” Indira said. “Up ahead. You see green wall?”

“Yes.”

“We stop here.”

It was a T-intersection. Turn right, left, or crash into a green cinder block wall that was maybe ten meters across and two meters high. A roll of razor wire was strung along the top. Alleys ran at obtuse angles from either side of the wall. Indira jumped the curb and drove into the alley on our right. The wall continued on our left, running deeper. On the right side of the alley was a decrepit graffiti-rich building. Up ahead a steel barricade on wheels was ensconced into the wall. A gate, I guess. Indira killed the engine and called out in Bahasa. I heard movement on the other side of the wall, and then someone wrestled free a chain and very quickly the gate rolled open.

“Hurry,” Indira said. “Go inside.”

A young girl had opened the gate. I climbed off the motorbike and brushed past her. Indira pushed the motorbike inside and then the girl rolled the gate shut just as quickly as she had opened it.

It took a moment to process everything.

In truth, I hadn’t expected much … but some sort of building, surely. Instead I found something akin to a campsite. Or flea market stalls. In the center of the compound was a rectangular pavilion-type structure. It had a few columns made from cinder blocks. The four corners were supported with wooden posts. The roof was aluminum. It was built low and flat. The pavilion was partitioned horizontally and vertically with plastic sheeting to create stalls that might have been four meters deep and five meters across. Inside the stalls were people.

Families.

They used car batteries for electricity and fire pits for cooking. They sat on benches made from cinder blocks and two-by-fours. Clothes were strung on lines. Trash was strewn about. No sign of plumbing.

The young girl stared at me.

I thought she might be eleven or twelve years old. She wore shorts, tee shirt and sandals. Her hair was long and simple. I gave half-a-smile and said, “Hello.”

The girl took a step back. Afraid, I thought.

Indira said, “Her name is Rose. She never see foreigner before.”

This time I smiled with effort. “Hello, Rose.”

Rose bowed slightly and then ran off.

Indira said, “Follow her.”

The pavilion ran north to south and was partitioned lengthwise straight down the middle, with four stalls facing outward to the east, butted against four stalls facing outward to the west. A well-worn path made an oval track around the whole structure.

Rose went right, and we followed.

At the top of the oval a mother was outside bathing with her kids. They used ladles and urns and were unashamed to be naked. But I felt ashamed. On the west side of the pavilion was a small courtyard area. Maybe courtyard is the wrong word though. A fire burned in a steel drum. A few men sat around it, smoking cigarettes. A few tarps were secured to wooden posts and people slept beneath them. A step down from the stalls, as if such a thing was even possible. In the same area a handful of kids chased after a soccer ball. They saw me and were startled. Maybe they’d never seen a foreigner either.

Rose darted into one of the stalls.

It had a tarp draped from the roof for privacy. I could hear excited voices, but all I could see were furtive shadows against the tarp. A small group of men and children gathered around us. The men were just curious, I hoped.

“Is there a plan?” I asked, because I had no clue what was going on.

“We already talk plan. I give you to radicals,” Indira said, straight-faced. Then she smiled and added, “Trust me. You will see the plan. Okay?”

The tarp opened like a tent and a woman emerged from the stall. Unlike the men that had gathered around us, this woman had put considerable effort into her appearance. As if she’d been expecting company. She wore a modest dress and a hijab. Petite, attractive, maybe early forties. She smiled demurely and it felt familiar somehow. She folded her hands together and bowed, and then she embraced Indira. But Indira was much, much taller, and the woman had to stand on her toes.

Suddenly, everything clicked.

“Indira?”

Indira turned to me with a grim smile.

“Maya’s sister is named Rose.”

Indira nodded. “We go inside now.”

I used the word stall, but in fact this was Maya’s home. Maybe two hundred square feet, with a tin roof overhead and a tattered rug to cover the dirt floor below. “Is Maya here?” I asked.

Indira shook her head. “She stay my home.”

Tian and Faye were Maya’s parents. I shook hands with Tian. He was wiry, with coarse hands and dark skin from long days laboring outside. Rose was Maya’s only sibling. A family friend was here as well. Her name was Istira. Fortyish, I thought. Modestly dressed with a white hijab … but she was also pensive, and stressed. The adults sat on the rug and Rose served us tea.

“Terima kasih,” I said, to a chorus of oohs and aahs, as if an American learning exactly one expression of gratitude in a foreign culture was an impressive feat. Rose didn’t offer to serve any food. I was grateful for that as well. I didn’t want to take from people who had so little.

A radio blared from an adjacent stall. K-Pop. Weird, that I could understand the chorus. Kajima, kajima. Don’t go, don’t go. Weirder, that it was playing on a radio station in Jakarta. A lifetime ago I’d gone to see a Korean pop concert. I hadn’t understood a thing, and not just lyric-wise. The gyrating, rave-ish nature of it all had been lost to me. But now I longed to be in that time and place again, when the rapidly growing fascination with upbeat nonsensical millennials had been the greatest threat to American culture.

On the floor, I sat facing in, not out—and I felt anxious, exposed. A thin tarp was all that separated me from the curious onlookers who still hovered three steps away, but there was nothing I could do about it.

We sipped tea and made light conversation with Indira translating. It was interrupted when someone in the stall opposite Maya’s took a hellacious piss. He made tall arcs that hissed back and forth, beating hot contrails into the plastic that split the pavilion lengthwise. It left a pool of urine that seeped into Maya’s home.

Nothing I could do about that, either.

Istira held out a framed picture.

Indira said, “She would like you to look. Then she will tell you a story. I will translate for you after she finish.”

I nodded at Istira. “Sure.” I took the photo and listened as Istira told her story in Bahasa. I’d seen a thousand same-but-different photos. You have too. Your own, or your kids. Probably both. I found Maya pretty quick. That shy smile hadn’t changed. She was in the front row, because the back row is always for the tall kids. The photo was dated September 2003. Maya would have been thirteen back then. The teacher had been a very young woman. Mid-twenties, I thought. Like Chyka. I counted forty-three students, and I knew one of them had belonged to Istira. Some things are easily understood no matter the language.

Grief, for example.

Istira trembled as she spoke. I listened carefully. The words were lost to me, but I understood the pain. Istira took the frame again, and then showed me her daughter. Second row, third from the left. A tiny smirk, a bit confident, like she knew something no one else did. A beautiful girl, really. Istira finally grew quiet, and then Indira began to translate.

Istira’s daughter was Danisa and she had been missing since November 2003. But the story of how she went missing begins in 1997, with the crippling financial crisis that hit Asia—the same crisis that had led U.S. based flag carriers to discontinue flights to Seoul and made my first overseas assignment a no-joke GSL. Indonesia, Korea and Thailand had been the hardest hit countries. The Indonesian currency was in free fall as world markets dumped rupiah for U.S. dollars.

Until the crisis, one dollar bought 2,600 rupiah. In only a few weeks that same dollar bought 14,000 rupiah. Or said differently, 2,600 rupiah had been the equivalent of one American dollar—but now it was worth nineteen cents.

In real terms, everyone in Indonesia was getting poorer. And the crisis was exacerbated by the fact Indonesian companies with foreign debt had to repay loans using American dollars. Imagine if all your debt increased five-fold overnight. Essentially that’s what happened to Indonesian companies, but it was the people already living in poverty that suffered the most. In an effort to stabilize the rupiah, won and baht, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued $35 billion in “financial support … for adjustment and reform programs in Indonesia, Korea, and Thailand.” Another $85 billion was pledged from “multilateral and bilateral sources.” All total, nearly $40 billion went to Indonesia—but in less than a year the rupiah lost sixty-five percent of its value.

The Indonesian Bank governor lost his job, and President Suharto was forced from office. Suharto’s home had been one of the first stops on tonight’s itinerary. Apparently it hadn’t been random.

Emergency stores of food—including rice—were delivered to Jakarta and distributed throughout the country. But with IMF and foreign aid came mandated reforms and oversight administered by western officials from predominately “Christian” nations. For a Muslim populace already in political and societal upheaval, to label such oversight as “unpopular” is a vast understatement. A multitude of crises—inflation, failing banks, food shortages, catastrophic unemployment—made Jakarta a breeding ground for extremism and ripe for recruiting young jihadists.

Terrorist bombs hit Central Jakarta three times in 1998 and early 1999. A shopping center and the Istiqlal Mosque were among the targets. Then in August 2000, a terrorist bomb killed two people outside the official residence of the Philippines ambassador. Only six weeks later, fifteen people were killed when the Jakarta Stock Exchange was hit by a car bomb. Most of the dead were Indonesian chauffeurs waiting to drive their bosses home for the night.

Then came al-Qaeda.

That same year a coordinated attack against churches in Jakarta, Bandung and other cities left eighteen people dead on Christmas Eve.

In October 2002, Jemaah Islamiyah—a radical group affiliated with al-Qaeda—killed more than two hundred tourists in Bali, including seven Americans.

The JW Marriott was hit for the first time in 2003.

The list goes on and on. Self-detonating radicals. Car bombs. IEDs. Bombs at concerts, hotels, nightclubs, markets, shopping centers.

“The big one was of course your country,” Indira said. “I will not lie to you. I told you a man come to the mosque to celebrate what happen. It is true, my father ran him away. My father forbid the man to return. But it is also true the man was not alone. I am very sorry to say it, but I will not lie. Many people were happy to see your country suffer. I tell you what I think. I am strong Muslim. But the men who do this Nine-Eleven are in hell. They will never see paradise. And the men who take our innocent children in the name of jihad? There is a special hell just for them. I hope they will burn in it forever.”

“Is that what happened to Danisa?”

Indira nodded angrily. “Yes. She was taken. Danisa was Maya’s best friend since early years in private school. It was not the best school, but it also was not the worst. Then the money crisis and IMF make everything change and people could no longer afford private schools. Danisa and Maya had to go to public school. It had only one teacher for every seventy students. Can you believe it? Sadly it is true. How will they teach? How will the student learn? You know what the teacher tell the parents? ‘I cannot teach everyone. Would you like your student to learn something? Then give me money and I will teach your student.’ She do this because the teacher salary is nothing. The teacher is also poor. But the parents cannot pay. If the parents had money they would not send student to this school in first place. Many students just quit school because there is no reason to go. But Danisa and Maya go school every day.”

“Until they were thirteen.”

Indira nodded. “Then the imam come.”

“Imam? From where?”

“Hell,” Indira hissed.

The Rainy Season: “one good minute in a day with one thousand four hundred and forty minutes they had to survive”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

Indira had said I was “crazy!” to walk alone to the train station—especially so early in the morning—but I’d insisted, and now she was genuinely relieved that I’d made it. She turned to her students and said, “You see now why he is Mr. Strange?”

Ha-ha-ha. I didn’t reply because it was too early for banter.

Maya, Gita, Farid and Ridwan had brought the supplies we’d purchased during yesterday’s shopping excursion. The schools I’d taught at in South Carolina, Florida, Korea and Germany all had large supply rooms. Maybe the shelves had been bare occasionally, but in reality I had never lacked anything important for my students. I also didn’t know the first thing about creating arts and crafts or performing The Lion King. Chyka, on the other hand, obviously knew about such matters. She just didn’t have any supplies. Indira had shared with me after our last visit to Bogor that The Lion King costumes that had been so adorable on Lucy and her classmates had been made from recycled Peter Pan costumes. Apparently Chyka had all sorts of talents. Her students recycled every project, craft and costume and used the same materials again and again.

Farid and Ridwan claimed artistic talents on my level, so we’d given free reign to Maya and Gita. I’d discovered that Maya isn’t nearly so quiet and reserved with a Visa card in hand. Of course it was my Visa. A partial list of the damage: crayons, markers, colored pencils, colored chalk, watercolors, yarn, fabric scraps, thread, burlap, clay, foil, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, string, straws, glass beads, wood beads, ink pads, sponges, stamps, glitter, cotton balls, foam, sequins, floral wire, white glue, glue sticks, fabric glue, wood glue, scissors, paintbrushes, foam brushes, clippers, copy paper, construction paper, stock paper, colored tissue paper, contact paper, cardboard, and sheets and sheets and sheets of fabric.

Whew.

Maya and Gita’s faces had been lit up the entire time. Gita, in her confusing Aussie accent, had said it was “a most fun adventure.” Farid and Ridwan had been sweating and out of breath just trying to keep up.

Now we lugged our loot onto the train platform.

“This will be fun on the mini-buses,” I said.

“Oh come on,” Indira said. “Becak will be more fun.”

“True.”

A moment later the platform began to tremble. It took a Herculean effort to get the school supplies on board the train before its doors closed. Some of the supplies were in normal shopping bags. Some were in large duffel bags. The fabrics, mostly. A few bulky items were in a cardboard box.

Ridwan said, “Why did we not hire a car?”

Indira began opening windows as the train left the station. “Ask Mr. Strange. The train is his idea.”

Ridwan is so literal. He looked right at me and said, “Why did we not hire a car?”

“I enjoy the ambiance and the ripe air on the train.”

“He also like to go first class,” Indira said. Then she smiled at me and motioned to a duffel bag she’d placed beneath an open window. “Your premium seat, sir.”

I sat on the duffel bag. “Thank you. When is the beverage service?”

Indira didn’t miss a beat. She reached into her purse and said, “Pepsi and Pocky sticks. Is there something else I can do for you, sir?”

I’m more likely to laugh during a root canal than I am to laugh at anything this early in the morning. Same goes for smiling. But on this morning I did both. I took the Pepsi and cookies and said, “First class. You weren’t kidding.”

I’d worn jeans and a polo shirt today, along with my Braves hat, sunglasses and Nike running shoes. Maybe I was traveling first class, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t dress casual and comfortable. Indira and her students had dressed casual as well.

Indira settled in for the long train ride on a second duffel bag. Plenty of passengers were staring at her. They’d probably never seen such exuberance on a train without seats. The train gathered speed and carried us away from Jakarta. A complex of tall buildings at the city’s edge disrupted the flow of air through the windows. In one instant it was smooth and quiet and in the next it was violent and loud, reminiscent of the thump-thump-thump you get when driving a car through a tunnel with a window down.

It was too loud for conversation. I was okay with that.

The tracks bent hard to the right and the acoustics changed again as we broke free of the city. The train snaked its way right, left, right again. The air became cooler and easier on our lungs as we made our way south through thick forests and across mountains and rivers. Indira’s students were like puppies in a pickup truck. Heads out the windows, tongues lolling to the side, hair flapping in the wind, tails wagging and drool everywhere.

The first stations along our route hadn’t awakened yet. A few passengers got off the train, but we didn’t pick up any new passengers. I was alert, of course. A fiftyish man in dirty work clothes had a pretty intense scowl. Maybe it was for me, or maybe not. His scowl didn’t overly concern me because I usually have one this early in the morning, too. He eventually left for a connecting car. That wasn’t the case with an older lady who took a noticeable interest in our group. Her hijab was olive green and it reminded me of army fatigues. A long, hard life had wrinkled and weathered her face—at least the parts of it that weren’t covered. Something about her made me wary. Her eyes, I think. They screamed disapproval.

Not at me.

Indira.

The train began to slow and Indira stood and spoke Bahasa to her students. She’d done her own shopping, apparently—though for what, I had no idea—and now she gave bags to each of her students. Indira also kept one bag for herself.

Some daily passengers took notice of the movement.

The older lady with the army fatigues hijab was no longer content to send nasty thoughts our way. She said a few harsh words to Indira. To her credit, Indira merely bowed and gave the lady a polite smile—and it struck me how effortlessly she moved through two vastly different worlds. Indira’s home was in Jakarta’s third ring, but her professional life was in Central Jakarta—and for that she was resented in one world, and dismissed in the other.

“What are you doing? Why is this woman angry?”

Indira didn’t reply.

Then the older lady began to shout at me, all belligerent. Now Indira replied. She and the older lady had a tense back-and-forth but when it was over the lady turned away from us with a disgusted humph. Score one for Indira.

“What was that about?”

“She think you are cute,” Indira said, straight-faced. “But I tell her you get the ugly face sometimes and I do not think she will like it.”

Maybe she fibbed with the translation?

But I didn’t need to ask again. I glanced out the window and immediately understood. Up ahead I could see low, crude structures with flat aluminum roofs held in place with piles of rubble. Kids sat on the rooftops, feet dangling in the air. They held long poles with sacks tied to the end. I’d seen this a few days ago, and the indifference of the daily passengers had affected me in a powerful way. Now Indira leaned out the window and waved both arms at the rooftop kids.

When I was ten years old my parents bought me an official NFL Electric Football Game that came with plastic players affixed to metal bases. With the flip of a switch the players would move haphazardly up, down, left and right across a vibrating metal table that was painted to look like a football field. I thought about that old game after Indira waved at the rooftop kids. It was like Indira had flipped a switch. Kids swarmed in every direction, trying to find the best possible position to reach Indira. The sheer number of kids was staggering. I counted five, ten, fifteen … and then quit counting.

I glanced at the older and now belligerent lady. Her face twisted with rage.

My reaction was to stand up, to position myself between Indira and anyone that might try to stop her from giving to the rooftop kids. I needn’t have worried. The daily passengers didn’t like what Indira was doing, but they weren’t going to try to stop her.

The train shuddered and its brakes screeched. Above it all I heard kids screaming from the rooftops. The kids had maybe a minute, and they knew it. One good minute in a day with one thousand four hundred and forty minutes they had to survive.

Indira had brought bags full of Pocky sticks—lots and lots of Pocky sticks—which are chocolate-coated cookies, shaped like the sparklers my nieces play with on July Fourth. Maybe they sell them in America. I’m not sure. They’re everywhere in Asia. In Korea they even have Pepero Day—a Valentine’s Day-esque holiday where people exchange the chocolate-coated cookie sticks.

Indira had planned her own version of Pepero Day.

The long poles assaulted the train. The sacks tied at the end of the poles fought each other and some broke off and fell to the ground. Indira and her students did what they could. They filled the sacks they could reach, as fast as possible, with as many cookies as they could fit … but a fast-minute later the earth trembled and the train rumbled relentlessly forward.

Indira said, “No-no-no!”

The kids were even more desperate. They all screamed. Some cried when their poles could no longer reach the train. Indira began throwing the cookies.

“Give me the bag,” I said.

Indira’s shopping bag was still half-full of Pocky sticks. It had just enough weight that I could lean out the window and toss it onto one of the passing rooftops. Which set off a mad dash free-for-all. All the commotion attracted even more kids. Some had been sleeping amongst the rubble. Some had been sleeping in the houses below. Now they were scrambling to get cookies. I slung Maya’s bag onto a passing rooftop as well. Another free-for-all. Gita gave me her bag, but it was too late. The train was moving too fast. The kids were too far away.

Indira said, “Oh my god.”

“What?”

“Look.”

A naked boy was running alongside the train. He’d probably been in bed. And when I say bed, I mean he’d been sleeping somewhere on a dirt floor. Maybe he was five or six years old. He heard the commotion on the rooftops and came running, literally. He was twenty meters behind us, but fading fast. I had Gita’s bag of cookies … but now the boy was forty meters behind us. I thought, it’s too dangerous to drop it beside the tracks. But the boy was running alongside the tracks already. He was at least seventy-five meters behind us when I let the bag fall. He was so far away, but he ran so hard. I leaned out the window until I couldn’t see him anymore. I don’t know if he ever made it to the cookies or not.

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The Memory of Hope: “the first wave of heroes”

An excerpt from The Memory of Hope, by Tucker Elliot.

The first wave was brave men and women in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania. Office workers who refused to leave colleagues behind as they evacuated the burning towers. Police officers and firemen who must have known that rushing into those buildings and climbing those stairs meant a certain death—and yet they never hesitated. The people on the streets of Lower Manhattan, in the debris, rendering aid to strangers—this after having seen two planes crash, and not knowing if other planes were on the way. A mayor who went to ground zero with a bullhorn, in harm’s way but leading in a crisis. The news personnel that documented the tragedy but did so with humanity.

The first wave continued—flight attendants and passengers who fought back, and soldiers and civilians who braved the burning wreckage of the Pentagon to reach the injured and dying.

The first wave was the men and women who went to Wall Street to reopen the Stock Exchange. It was the teachers who welcomed students back to school when smoke from Ground Zero could still be seen from classroom windows. It was the people who stood in line to give blood. It was the medical personnel—doctors, nurses, paramedics, mental health professionals—who were the first responders on that Tuesday in September, and it was the ones who in the days that followed worked tirelessly around the clock in hospitals, parking lots, on the streets.

It was the single mom store clerk in Times Square who might have been afraid but she went back to work anyway. The transit workers who got a city moving again. The rescue and construction crews that breathed contaminated air and would forever suffer physically and emotionally from digging through the wreckage, looking for survivors, recovering remains of the people we lost, cleaning up the debris, and rebuilding.

It was the airline industry and its employees that held their own grievous loss in check so that they might fly again—not just for commerce and free markets, but so a way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists.

It was the guardsmen and women called to duty from states all across our great country—the weekend warriors had a mission unprecedented in our nation’s history, and they committed to doing their part, and doing it well.

It was normal, everyday Americans, from all walks of life, doing what they could, where they were, no matter how big or small.

It was our military. Courageous men and women who would fight and die for an idea—that life, liberty and the ability to passionately chase our dreams still matter.

They were the first wave of heroes.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a national tragedy for America, but for the men, women and children who lost family and friends on that day it was incredibly personal. We really had no choice, though. We had to stand back up. We would grieve, but we’d do so on our feet and moving forward.

The Rainy Season: “a ticket to Afghanistan”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot

In the days after 9/11 the home economics teacher at my military school in Korea had students baking cookies for snipers. That probably sounds strange. It felt surreal. Our small army post had brought in snipers from Seoul and placed them on the roofs of our housing units and school buildings. Just one of the many things I hadn’t prepared for in college. We also had military police riding school buses and patrolling our hallways. They carried M-16s loaded with live rounds. The MPs got a lot of cookies, too. Most of the classroom windows had to be covered with dark-colored bulletin board paper. Our military post was surrounded by a vertical city of three-and-a-half million people. We didn’t want student silhouettes lighting up the scopes for any Johnny Jihad snipers that might have found a perch high above our perimeter wall. Students weren’t allowed outside for recess either. Instead of the playground our students used the library and cafeteria—though not for reading and eating. Sometimes we’d march students up and down the stairwells just to burn off excess energy. Or to give mental health breaks to workers in the library and cafeteria. We also had to cancel after school sports and extra-curricular events.

My principal obviously wasn’t going to China.

Not anytime soon.

We had constant briefings from the military command. We were told to blend in and be vigilant, but no one told us how to do those things. Somewhere in Washington D.C. a PowerPoint was being tweaked. But we hadn’t seen it yet. Meanwhile, the media said “live your lives or the terrorists win” and most of us were on board with that. But we were also on board with the snipers hanging with us for a while. If that was a contradiction then so be it.

The military went to war for our country.

So did military spouses. So did military brats.

My principal had been with the Department of Defense for three decades. His name was Ray and he was a tall, imposing figure. His tendency to be abrupt was often mistaken for impatience. In fact he just didn’t like wasting time. There really is a difference. He was honest, quick and decisive when settling routine matters but he was deliberate and uncannily intuitive when counseling teachers or students. Ray had been an airman before he was an educator, and now he was leading military students and teachers in a crisis unlike any that our school system had ever faced.

“We have to be normal for our kids,” Ray said. “Nothing else will be. Not for a long time. They need homework, quizzes, essays and tests. They need structure and assurances. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t care. We’re going to do it anyway. We’re going to help each other. And we’re going to be successful.”

It was tense, and stressful—but we did our best. Not just for our students and the soldiers stationed in Korea with us, but for our country and military at large, our families and friends back in the states, and with heavy hearts we did our jobs in honor of our colleagues in New York and D.C. and western Pennsylvania who persevered daily in classrooms with circumstances far worse than ours. We did our best to move forward and be normal so our way of life could get back on its feet and give the finger to a group of radical terrorists. As athletic director, I thought moving forward and being normal meant our athletic teams should be competing. But it was a decision for the military command and for sure no one was going to ask for my opinion.

I began every day by asking Ray, “Any news on sports?”

He would answer, “Nothing.”

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. That’s how it felt.

Then one Monday morning I asked, “Anything?”

Ray looked up from his desk and said a single word. “Shanghai.”

“What about Shanghai?”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Okay.”

Ray said, “I’m sending you instead.”

“To Shanghai?”

“You’re in here every day begging for something to do.”

“With sports.”

“I spoke with the superintendent. Sports and extra-curricular activities are going to resume next week.”

“Finally—”

He waved his hand to cut me off. “First you have to go to Seoul for updated force protection training. Then you have to brief our coaches and athletes on new procedures. Then sports can start up again.”

“Great—”

He waved again. “They’re faxing travel orders for you to fly to Seoul.”

“Okay—”

“After Seoul you’re going to Shanghai.”

“But—”

“I don’t want to go,” he said again. “I could feed you a line and say it’s an honor the superintendent chose to send you in my place. I won’t. He didn’t. I told him you would go because I thought it would force him to cancel Shanghai. But he agreed, so now you’re stuck. The good news is you’ll be back in time to get sports going again.”

“What am I going to do in Shanghai?”

He shrugged. “Buy some whiskey in duty-free.”

“I don’t drink.”

“It’s not for you.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Buy a suit. Wear it. Leave your hat at home. Smile. Nod. Give him whiskey and bow a lot.”

“Him” was the Chinese principal. He’d given Ray some expensive alcohol back in May. Ray gave me a few other particulars and I spent the rest of Monday teaching and adjusting lessons plans for my substitute. I arrived in Seoul on Tuesday evening and got a room at the Dragon Hill Lodge on Yongsan Army Garrison. The security briefing took place Wednesday morning at the DoDDS-Korea District Office, which was on the same post and within easy walking distance from the Dragon Hill.

Every DoDDS athletic director on the peninsula was in attendance.

The district safety and security officer gave the briefing. The SSO was a guy named Harkins. He was early forties with a high-ranking civilian position and a generous salary. Harkins was tall and wide, but fit. He had a high-and-tight military cut and no doubt his personal one-step plan for increased safety and security was to spend more time in the gym. I’d been in a few briefings with Harkins. He’d always been an outgoing, no-nonsense guy. But this morning his eyes were puffy and tired and his affect resembled a defeated warrior.

I gave a concerned look to a few colleagues and got a few shrugs in reply. The bottom line is we were all tired and stressed. None of us had a clue what would transpire over the next few months. Why should the SSO be any different?

Harkins said, “I have a PowerPoint. I’m not going to use it.”

Which would have been welcome news in different circumstances.

“I was a soldier. I fought in Desert Storm. We lost good soldiers, marines, airmen. But this war is different.” Harkins was really struggling. He paused a beat, and when he continued it was with an emotional plea. “Let’s not lose any of our kids. We can’t lose any of our kids.”

I understood why Harkins hadn’t used the PowerPoint.

This wasn’t “updated force protection training.” The only thing that had changed post-9/11 was Harkins had been much more insistent this time. Like cleaning up after lunch. Ultimatums on top of earlier ultimatums. Apparently our new plan was, “From now on you need to listen when we talk about safety and security because this time we really mean it.”

I shouldn’t be cynical.

It was a difficult time for everyone. Maybe it was even more difficult for Harkins. He was a tough, ex-soldier whose country was going to war—only he’d been tasked to fight with something other than bullets. Ground Zero was still burning. What Harkins really wanted was a ticket to Afghanistan.

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The Rainy Season: “the only truth that matters”

An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:

In my mind I’d placed rings around the hotel. The high-end shopping, restaurants and other luxury hotels were in the first ring—Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and dozens of other brand names fit for Fifth Avenue. Not that downtown Jakarta would ever be confused with Manhattan, but persons with substantial means could certainly pass time in Jakarta without any major inconveniences. In the second ring were places like Chili’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, 7-Eleven, Circle K and Dunkin’ Donuts.

We’d left the first and second rings behind after five minutes of driving … in traffic.

The_Rainy_Season_cover-HIGH-RESIn the third ring the streets were narrow and dark, almost sinister. People lit fires on sidewalks to burn trash or cook food, or both. There were steel barricades with heavy padlocks in front of every doorway, and they made every residence look like a prison. They probably felt that way, too. The motorbikes that weren’t playing Frogger on the streets were chained to the same barricades that fortified the houses. Half-naked kids were panhandling in traffic. The first ring glowed in the distance, lit up by consumerism that was brought to Jakarta courtesy of western cultures and Christian nations, and it influenced impoverished Muslims in the third ring, who wore Manchester United tee shirts with “Rooney” on the back, twisting further the attitudes and perceptions of those who were bent already toward radicalism.

Maybe we should build a McDonald’s on every corner and declare victory. Or did we try that already?

The traffic got worse and soon we were at a complete standstill. There were four or five local men in various states of undress standing in the road, but the only police officers in sight were sitting off to the side and seemingly unconcerned about the situation. The locals were ostensibly directing traffic to alleviate the jam, but it was pretty clear they were in fact causing it to further the panhandling efforts of the kids.

Indira said, “Soukpa, close your window.”

Soukpa had barely registered what Indira had said when a hand slammed loudly against the van. Soukpa cried out in surprise and nearly fell from her seat, but it was only a boy, maybe eight or nine years old.

The boy cried through the window in English, “I hungry!

Soukpa quickly reached into her tote bag.

Indira grabbed Soukpa’s arm. “No,” she said. “You must not give the boy money. You see the men? The boy work for the men. The men will take anything you give the boy.”

Soukpa was horrified. “Who give boy food?”

Will said, “It’s difficult to say no, but Indira’s right.”

Soukpa’s hand came out of the bag with a banana. She had no money to give the boy, but she was prepared to give away the food she had pinched from the breakfast buffet.

Indira shook her head sadly. “I am sorry.”

The boy banged his hand repeatedly on the side of the van. Soukpa was obviously torn, but she put the banana back into her bag. I’d never seen a face with such a pained expression. The boy just banged away, again and again, and his antics drew unwanted attention to our van from the people on the street, sidewalks, and other cars. He screamed, “I hungry! I hungry!” It was uncomfortable, to say the least. Indira spoke Bahasa to our driver, who then climbed out of the van and chased the boy away with a few harsh words.

“I am sorry,” Indira said again.

The city assaulted us with its hellacious cacophony, but inside the van it was eerily quiet.

Indira finally gave everyone a big smile, and then she asked, “How many Indonesian men does it take to direct traffic?” I didn’t say anything because I had no idea if she was being serious. No one else said anything either. Indira laughed and told us, “All of them. The women work and cook and clean and make babies and pray five times a day, but the men have nothing better to do.”

“How long are they going to keep us here?” I asked.

“You do not like my joke?”

“It’ll be funnier after they let us go.”

“They let us go soon, I think.”

The police officers finally stood up. They blew whistles and chased the men and kids from the street. Our van began moving again and a short moment later I saw firsthand how completely the filth and squalor of the third ring had enveloped the train station. Wallach had the right idea, avoiding this place. The van had barely slowed when a crowd of men descended on it, waving and motioning our driver to park in twenty different places.

Indira said, “How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?”

There was a chorus of “all of them,” and this time it probably would have been funny if not for the women, children and street vendors waiting for us in all twenty different places we were being directed. It was a relief when finally we parked and climbed out of the van, but immediately there were countless people staring at us—specifically at me, Will and Martin—and while most were simply curious, others were outright hostile. My ideal for blending in would be for no one to see or hear me, ever. Good luck with that. Not here, not in this scenario. Sometimes blending in means acute situational awareness and the right attitude. Act as if you belong. Which is why I approached the ticket office the same way I’d left the airport the other night: no big deal.

Being with Indira obviously helped. She made all our arrangements. On that account, Wallach had been right on target. The listed price was 7,000 rupiah per ticket. Indira haggled and finally agreed on 5,000 rupiah. Our group of sixteen would travel for less than ten dollars. Indira had knocked a buck-fifty off the total, which I found incredibly amusing at the time.

I don’t have a lot of experience with trains, but the “train station” picture I had in mind had been formed by Seoul Station and London Liverpool Street. My picture was off just a bit. Well, in truth, I wasn’t even on the right canvas. In Seoul and London the train stations have concourses with high-end shopping and fancy restaurants. The train station we departed from that morning had a dirty 7-Eleven with about half of its shelves stocked.

I bought a bottle of water and sat quietly on the platform.

There were only two tracks, but after a few minutes Indira realized we were sitting on the wrong side. We climbed an escalator that didn’t work, crossed over to the other side, and found benches dirtier than the ones we’d just left.

I decided to walk around the platform. It was elevated and I could see a long line of people standing outside a small grocer across the street from the station.

Indira walked over and said, “It is really sad.”

“What is?”

She pointed at a sign I hadn’t noticed: Western Union. “It is the same in every city in my country, a long line every morning to get money family member send from overseas. It comes from your country, Dubai, Europe, but not from my country. The people will not even take the money in rupiah because they no longer trust it. They will take U.S. dollars from the Western Union.”

“I had no idea things were this bad. If all I had seen of your country was the area around the hotel then I would think everyone in Indonesia is rich.”

“Indonesians believe all Americans are rich.”

“Trust me, they’re not.”

“Indonesians believe American schools are the best in the world.”

“American schools have eight hundred million problems. At least.”

“You can see Central Jakarta from here. See how tall my city is?”

She was right. The skyscrapers and luxury hotels could easily be seen in the distance.

“It is very easy for the people to see, but almost impossible for them to afford. We believe every American is rich because every American that come to my city can afford Central Jakarta.”

“The ones who can’t afford it don’t come. You know it’s that simple.”

Indira nodded. “I know. But here the only truth that matters is what the people can see. The city grows taller, the people here live in the shadow, foreigners shop in stores that are not Indonesian so your money will not stay in my country, but your money will make life more expensive for every Indonesian with no choice but to stay.”

“You’re not going to self-detonate now, are you?”

Indira smiled wryly. “My sister is secretary in Central Jakarta.”

“Is that a good job?”

“If you work for foreign company. My sister is secretary for Indonesian company.”

“What’s the difference?”

“She has not been paid her salary in six months.”

“She hasn’t been paid in six months, but she’s still working there?”

“Yes.”

“What about you?” I asked.

“I get half my salary in U.S. dollars. I am very lucky because I can help my sister and my parents.” She thought for a second, and then added, “The only time I think to self-detonate is when I have to work with people like Wallach.”

“He has that effect on people.”

“You are lucky to be American. Do you know why I work so hard for this conference? I will help Indonesian teachers. The teachers will help Indonesian children. The children will help my country.”

“Then I came along and said nobody you invited to the conference had any answers. Sorry about that.”

Indira let loose her outrageous laugh. “Oh come on, Mr. Strange. I tell you many times already that I am not blind. I can see you do not trust easy. I also think you forgot how to trust yourself. But I trust you, and I know today you will help Chyka.”

I really had no idea how to respond.

“You wish to change the topic. I can tell.”

“No, we can talk about Chyka. Is it a good job to be a teacher here?”

Indira shrugged. “A government school is not good. I think maybe four hundred U.S. dollars a month is normal salary. Better than my loners, but still not good. Private teacher is good, and international teacher is rich, but only if you are foreigner.”

The train to Bogor finally pulled into the station.

“Thank you for doing this,” Indira said.

“You’re welcome.”

“I need one more favor.” Indira reached into her purse and came out with a nametag identical to the two she’d given me already. “Please wear your nametag all the time,” she said, struggling mightily to keep a straight face. She clipped it to my shirt before I could protest.

“Did you at least get me a first class seat?”

Indira laughed so hard, she could barely catch her breath. I saw why when I got on the train. It didn’t have any seats.

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