I grew up in San Marino, California. It is a conservative, wealthy suburb of Los Angeles.
It has a lot of rules, or at least did when I grew up there.
For example, when I was there, you could not park on the street overnight (without first calling the police department and getting permission). You could not pump your own gas (the attendant at the station had to pump it for you). You could not blow or wash your leaves into the street.
McDonald’s were not allowed. Nor were movie theatres. And you could get a ticket for jaywalking (as my sister did from a police officer who was hiding in the nearby bushes). I have feared jaywalking ever since.
It is all about preserving status quo.
And it is not a land of surprises.
Fast forward 30 years.
To midnight in Baghdad.
Where I, child of San Marino, am standing outside the palace of Saddam Hussein. The air is warm and still. It is tinged with a hint of smoke.
Next to me is Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau.
We are hitting a bucket of golf balls into Saddam Hussein’s lake.
“Who gets the balls out of the lake?” I ask the soldier who gave us the bucket.
“We don’t,” she said.
Of course, I think to myself.
In war, no one retrieves the golf balls.
I immediately imagine the island of golf balls that must be forming at the deepest depths of Saddam’s lake. One day it will crest above the surface, like a coral island made of Titleist.
While this is happening outside the palace, cartoonist Mike Peters is inside, looking for someone who can fix our room’s thermostat. He finds a two-star general. The man is in charge of 22,000 soldiers. But we are chilly and we need him to fix our thermostat.
If that’s not far enough from the pristine lawns of San Marino for you, consider this:
Twenty yards to the left of me is editorial cartoonist Mike Ramirez. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes. But he is not drawing that night. No, Mike Ramirez is feeding Cocoa Puffs to Saddam Hussein’s fish.
And these are not normal fish. They are ugly, scary fish. Some appear to be five-feet long. I assume they’re eating golf balls.
One of the soldiers shows us a video of a duck landing on the surface of the lake. A fish ate him. In Baghdad, even the fish are evil.
I hit a long drive.
Watching the golf ball ascend, I see in the distance the faint silhouette of a Blackhawk helicopter. It is firing its guns. It is a deep boom you feel in your rib cage.
I cannot sleep that night. All ten of us cartoonists have to sleep in the same room in five bunk beds. We end up sleeping with the light on, because not one of can remember to turn it off. So I now know the answer to the joke, “How many cartoonists does it take to turn off a light bulb?” It is something more than ten.
I walk outside at 6 a.m. and hit more golf balls. The air is grayish brown.
I’m a long way from San Marino.
And I am not afraid of jaywalking.