In War, No One Retrieves the Golf Balls

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.

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Saddamapalooza, Day 5; or The Last Time Ever I Saw Garry’s Face

I am sitting in a Blackhawk helicopter flying over a war zone.

Here is a Blackhawk.

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Here is me:

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And sitting across from me, helmet slightly askew, is this guy:

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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

Whoa.  Problem.

That last thought wasn’t from inside my head.

It was from outside my head.

That is bad.

It was this thing:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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Misanthropic Cartoonist, 41, Seeks Lively Discussion Later This Afternoon

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The misanthrope in me is being temporarily set aside.

I am doing a live radio interview this afternoon to discuss my trip to Iraq, as well as other things.

So if you have a question for me, or just want to talk, or just want to tell me how great I look in those Iraq photos, call in.

I’ll be on the air at 5:00 pm (Pacific Standard Time).

To listen live, go to http://www.ksro.com/ListenLive.aspx.

To call in, the toll free number is 877-636-1350.

And be nice.  I’m very sensitive.

UPDATE:  One more thing on the radio interview.  It sounds like we may have some sort of contest where I give away signed stuff to one of the callers.  So call in.