I am sitting in a Blackhawk helicopter flying over a war zone.
Here is a Blackhawk.
Here is me:
And sitting across from me, helmet slightly askew, is this guy:
He is Garry Trudeau, creator of the legendary comic strip Doonesbury.
And I am sitting there thinking, “How the hell did I get here?”
You see, I have six main comic strip influences: Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County, Doonesbury, Far Side and Dilbert.
I was fortunate enough to meet Charles Schulz and Berke Breathed. I’m friends with Scott Adams. I’ve never met either Gary Larson or Bill Watterson, but then neither have most cartoonists. And I had only seen Garry Trudeau once at a Reubens convention (cartooning’s annual awards weekend).
So when I found out Trudeau would be coming with us other cartoonists on our USO-sponsored trip to Iraq, it was definitely one of those “Is this really happening?” moments.
It’s an odd mixture of feelings flying with one of your cartooning heroes over a war zone. A whole bunch of thoughts ping around inside your head. They go something like this:
1) I don’t want to die.
2) I am sitting across from Garry Trudeau.
3) Helicopters crash a lot.
4) Dude, that is Garry Fucking Trudeau.
5) I don’t want to crash.
6) From that head came Doonesbury.
7) I should touch that head.
8) That would be strange.
9) There are machine guns on either side of me. My Honda Accord doesn’t have those.
10) THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA
That last thought wasn’t from inside my head.
It was from outside my head.
That is bad.
It was this thing:
And then a second burst of fire, this time from the machine gun on the right side of the helicopter.
THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA
I didn’t get a picture of that gun. But it looked a lot like this one:
These two guns are the loudest thing I have ever heard. I know this because earlier I had experimented by screaming into Mad Magazine artist Tom Richmond’s ear, “NOBODY LIKES YOU” as loud as I could over and over and he could not hear me.
And yet I heard the guns crystal clear.
We ALL heard the guns crystal clear. I know this because Jeff Keane started praying. I couldn’t hear him, but I could read his lips, and he was praying to that ghosty Grampa character in Family Circus: “Save me, Dead Grampa, save me.”
And so there I was.
In a helicopter shooting at things. And now my thoughts are more focused:
1) We are shooting at things.
2) In war, you shoot at things when things shoot at you.
3) Something is shooting at me.
4) I am going to die.
And then, a rather strange last thought:
5) Here is the last thing I will ever see:
If you had said to me as a thirteen-year old boy reading Doonesbury in the Los Angeles Times that Garry Trudeau’s face would be the last thing I would ever see, I would have had a hard time figuring out that scenario.
But here it is was. Right in front of me.
Making matters worse, I could see the headline in my head. “CREATOR OF DOONESBURY AND OTHERS SHOT DOWN OVER IRAQ.” Being an “other” made me sad too.
We all sat there in stunned silence. Jeff Keane praying to cartoon characters. Tom Richmond trying to hold me. And me, grabbing a gun, hanging out from the open window and offering to save everyone’s lives.
When we landed, we learned that they were not shooting at people. It was some routine thing the helicopter crew did to get the aim right on their guns. They fired at random desert targets.
Worse, editorial cartoonist Chip Bok, seated in the front of the helicopter and wearing a headset, knew it was about to happen and didn’t indicate that to any of us. That’s the kind of people cartoonists are. We make our friends think they’re going to die.
That amuses us.
I have to say that had that been me in Chip’s position, I would have gone even further. Knowing my fellow cartoonists would see me with a headset and thereby assume I knew what was going on, I would have jumped up and down and mouthed, “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!”
But we did not die. We lived.
To see another day.
And another face.
Beyond this one.