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Grand Rapids, Michigan
Guy next to me makes me uncomfortable, in a guilty sort of way. He wears a hat to hide his bald, chemotherapied head, and seems genuinely friendly, if a bit golly-gee-ish. His view of life has changed, he tells me; he now appreciates every moment. The proverbial flower whiff. He asks me to go to the movies with him. Politely declined. Across from us sit two young men, one black and one white, in army uniforms. In the course of our conversation, the black guy explains that he is a recruiter for the army, visiting area high schools.
"I was with the guys that caught Saddam Hussein," he tells us.
Years ago, in the outdoor patio of the Sensu restaurant in the trendy Recoleta section of Buenos Aires, I stood along the bar with the legendary Dave Radder, a couple of Brits named Wayne Carrington and Graham Perkins, and an infamous road-woman electrician from Portugal named Margarita, and called Gita. It was shortly after the Falklands War (the then-current joke in Argentina: "We lost the war - but we came in second!") and during the first Gulf War, when the United States and its allies fought to take back an occupied Kuwait from Hussein's forces. A suit-and-tie walked into the Sensu, Middle Eastern in looks, and overheard me speaking with Radder. The man angled through the crowd, forcing people aside, and strode directly to me.
"Are you American?" he demanded. I assessed the guy, and braced myself. On a train the previous evening, I had witnessed harassment of the Brits by locals, who harbored a chilling ill will toward the English from the recent Falklands debacle. I was ready for whatever he had for me, or so I thought.
"Yes, I am."
The man leapt upon me, hugged me hard and kissed my cheeks.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" he cried, arms wrapped around my shoulders, until finally letting go, and dropping down. He then jumped back onto me, shouting, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" I stared incredulously, and he again dropped away and explained, "I am The Ambassador to Argentina from Kuwait! And I want to thank you for saving my country!"
A bit nonplussed, I waved a dismissing hand and stammered, "No problem."
This became our joke, as though the response of the United States to the invasion of Kuwait had somehow been in my hands. From then on, whenever we crossed paths, he would gesticulate wildly over the crowd when he spied me, and yell, "No problem!"
"No problem!" I'd yell back, thumbs-up-winking, matching his our-personal-joke grin.
The Ambassador was a jittery piece of work, deep in the throes of an obsessive sexual frenzy in the balmy Argentine Aires. I had heard of the flights out of Saudi Arabia, when, as soon as the airplane lifted off the tarmac, all the flowing robes and headscarves would come off, and the men would begin drinking in earnest. This man, relieved from the strict sexual mores and manners of Kuwait, was like a kid in a candy store, forever chasing the ubiquitous, skimpily clad prostitutes. Always buying me a beer but never able to sit long enough to drink one with me, his eyes always over my shoulder on the prize, always jumping up in my mid-sentence, urging me to join in his glorious cause. Politely declined. I think of The Ambassador now, here in Grand Rapids, as I sit across from two army soldiers who'd fought in Iraq, one of whom is now a Superstar, used by the Army as a sort of lure to glory.
I am curious to hear the inside story of catching the once proud Butcher of Baghdad in his famous spider hole, but I'd learned long ago to give people space and privacy, and refrain from inquiring. My erstwhile companion suggests we buy them dinner, as a show of appreciation. I call over and ask what they would like, said it was on us. They order a large pepperoni pizza, and another round of beers. I pick up the bill. When it's time to leave, I walk behind the young soldiers toward the door, and clap them both on the back.
"Good work, men," I say, or something to that effect.
"Hey man, thanks for the pizza," the black kid says to me.
"No problem," I reply.