Friday, December 31, 2010

Spreading the Cheer

Early on the morning of Friday, December 24, AKA Christmas Eve, the Brass Quintet loaded up our instruments and gear for a weekend trip. Not really a vacation, but it was our first time to travel outside the Kandahar area since arriving in Afghanistan. We caught a helicopter flight to Forward Operating Base Lagman, a very small post north of here. (I can't be too specific about the details for security reasons, of course!)

It is easy to get a bit spoiled after being at KAF for a while, given that we have a boardwalk, multiple gyms, multiple dining facilities, internet access in our rooms, and bath facilities just down the hallway. The smaller FOB's don't necessarily have all those luxuries. Upon arrival, we had "VIP" accomodations, which were a couple of dusty rooms in a solid building, as opposed to a tent. There was a short walk to the latrine and shower, which were not as roomy as what we've gotten used to, and in the cooler weather having to walk over there in the dark was not a pleasant prospect. We arrived just after lunch, but the Chaplain's Assistant who was our "tour guide" was able to let us invade his "stash" so we were able to get a meal anyway. There is one chapel at Lagman, and it seems to have been built by the base's other primary tenants, the Romanians. The sanctuary room is full of Romanian-style icons and paintings. (I'm familiar with these types of images, having visited Romania twice a few years ago. I know one sentence in Romanian, which translates to "I don't speak Romanian." If you're only going to know one, that's not a bad choice.)

We had some time to scout out the facilities--one dining hall, where we would do most of our performing, plus a gym, barber shop, movie room, computer/phone center, and a Greens Beans coffee shop. Lagman is surrounded by mountains, so we appreciated the scenery, and with much less vehicle traffic it is far less dusty than KAF. The dining hall has a different contractor, and I must say that the food quality was quite an improvement from what we've been eating.

We hastily arranged to provide some pre-music for a Christmas Eve service, and that gave us a chance to give some of the Soldiers present a preview of coming attractions, so to speak. It also gave us a chance to listen to some Romanian songs (I don't know if they were hymns or carols) from the Romanian personnel before the service.

Christmas morning, we slept in for a bit to recover from the previous day's hectic travel schedule. Our first performance was for an appreciative lunch crowd, with us crammed into a corner of the festively-decorated dining room. We ran through a large selection of holiday tunes before finishing our set list and joining the chow line to try the turkey, beef, green beans, mashed potatoes, eggnog, pumpkin pie, and other delicacies.

After lunch, we headed to a Christmas party being hosted by the Combat Stress office. It was warm enough by this time that we didn't mind being outdoors, and having people dressed as Santa Clause, Mrs. Clause, and a couple of elves added to the festive feeling. (Photo above, though I wish I had a happier expression on my face!) With the relaxed atmosphere, we ended up sight-reading some of the tunes in our book just to have some variety. (Most of them turned out pretty good too.) After the party, we had some time to relax a bit.

We met up later to play our dinner set, and then we played some carols for a Christmas night gospel service, followed by some music for a midnight mass. I was glad that I had some time in between to get on Skype and talk to some friends and family, during which my parents pointed the webcam to the fresh Nashville snowfall out the window. Normally I would be irritated at missing a rare white Tennessee Christmas, but after all the snow I shoveled last year at Ft. Drum I was fine with the sunny Afghan weather. I'm also glad that modern technology, in the form of a laptop and a portable hard drive, allowed me do spend some of my down time enjoying things like ventriloquist Jeff Dunham's Christmas special, the cartoon classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and one of my all-time favorite films, It's a Wonderful Life.

Sunday was our "day off," and I was grateful for the rest, though we did get together in the evening for more dinner music. This time, however, we put away the caroling music and played some of our regular tunes. Monday afternoon we headed back to KAF, sorry to be leaving the great food and close camaraderie shared by the people on the small base. I was glad to get back to my comfortable bed and indoor plumbing, however. I can't say enough about the people at Lagman, though--they went out of their way to make us feel welcome and they seemed to really appreciate having their own music group for a few days. Hopefully we can make it back before too long!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmastime at KAF

Last week was the busiest week we've had at Kandahar Air Field in terms of our performance schedule. Various groups from the band, including my brass quintet, spent time every day performing for the troops. As a musician, that's one of the things I enjoy about Christmas: there is so much music associated with the holiday, and the opens up lots of opportunities to perform. On Saturday, 18 December, we had a busy schedule, playing at a party for an Army Engineering company. As soon as we arrived, the "chorus" that they had assembled was ready to sing along to our accompaniment of "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland." We performed music throughout the party before partaking of lunch ourselves.

Afterwards, we headed to the boardwalk to set up for the 10th Mountain Division Band's Christmas Concert. This would be an afternoon performance of several of our groups all in one place: the Brass Quintet, the Dixieland Band, the Tuba/Euphonium Quartet, and the Rock Band. We had a surprisingly large crowd, and most of them stayed for the whole show. After the BQ's opening segment, I had to hurry to the seating area to help take care of the video recording of the concert. I ended up getting interviewed by the camera crew from Armed Forces Network that was covering the event. Video of the concert can be found here and here, though in one of the videos they incorrectly identify me as playing in the "brass quartet."

Sunday, we began our caroling mission. Our small ensembles headed to various locations to play Christmas music for anyone who cared to listen. We did this all through the week. Because there are numerous nations represented here, there was an aspect of international goodwill to the performances. In addition to playing at the boardwalk, the PX, the RC-South compound, and the main dining facilities, we also played for a group of Canadian aircraft mechanics by the flightline and inside the Canadian military compound. Another performance found us entertaining the line that stretched outside the local Tim Horton's, one of Canada's most popular coffee shop chains. Before we left we had been provided with free chocolate chip muffins and coffee/hot chocolate from the staff. (Needless to say, I have now become a fan of Tim Horton's.) We also had a friendly reception from the Australian troops inside their office area. They handed out small koala-doll clips clutching candy canes to us. We were informed that they know many of the holiday tunes that we do, although they have to "Australianize" the lyrics to adjust for the unusual animals that are found there, and to adjust the wintry stuff for their summer December climate. One of our audience members was a Chaplain who had arrived the night before, and we had to caution him that brass quintet performances were an exception rather than the rule at KAF! One positive side to these types of performances is that we hope to open up doors for later performance opportunities throughout the deployment.

Speaking of which, in the next blog I'll write about the trip we took for the Christmas weekend!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The USO Tour Comes To Town

Academy Award-winning actor and comedian Robin Williams entertains the troops at KAF.
The day after we were visited by the Slovakian President, we had some more visitors--this time entertainers who were part of a USO tour. I'm a big fan of the USO--my first experience with them was on my way to basic training when I had a layover at the St. Louis airport and found the USO station there. They provided military personnel with a comfortable place to rest, watch television, and have free food and beverages. Last year when I was stranded for nearly two days in Philadelphia due to heavy snow, the USO made hanging out at the airport much easier, especially with the easy access to e-mail so I could notify family and friends what was happening.
But, back to the main story. This tour had a group of celebrities and entertainers who were traveling around various bases in Iraq and Afghanistan performing for the troops and showing their appreciation. The opening remarks of the show were provided by Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (the highest-ranking military officer and senior military advisor to the President), and his wife. They introduced the MC for the evening, cycling superstar Lance Armstrong. He is one of the most inspiring figures in sports in recent years, having overcome cancer to win seven Tours de France, the only cyclist to have done so, and his Livestrong foundation has done much to promote cancer treatments and research. He gave some short introductory comments, talking about running along the fenceline and ignoring various warning signs about restricted areas along the gravel road. He then introduced the first performer, comedian Kathleen Madigan. She was very funny, and like pretty much everyone else (except ADM and Mrs. Mullen) too blue for network television. She gave a shout out to the Canadians in the audience, observing that most Americans think of Canada the way they think of the attic--"you forget it's up there, but then you look and realize there's some pretty cool (stuff)." She also wondered, after hearing about the schools and roads and utilities that are being built by the military, what it would take for us to invade and rebuild the city of Detroit.
She was followed by Lewis Black, introduced by Armstrong as the "most negative man in America." He corrected the intro, saying that he isn't negative, just angry. The famously jittery comedian opined on how an iPhone is a "great computer and a lousy phone," and a Droid is "a great phone and a lousy computer," and told of his first USO tour, where someone made the extremely poor decision to put him on the program following Vince Gill and Amy Grant. (As a Nashville resident, I found that story very amusing.)
Speaking of Nashville, my hometown was represented by Kix Brooks, formerly half of mega-country duo Brooks & Dunn, and songwriter Bob DiPiero, who though not famous as a performer, has written about fifteen number one songs, including songs for Martina McBride, B & D, Faith Hill, and Montgomery Gentry. He's actually a pretty good performer, too, and sang his songs "Church on Cumberland Road" and "Gone." Brooks added two of his biggest hits, "Red Dirt Road" and "Only In America." Then it was time for the main event.
The final performer of the evening was one of the world's funniest men, Oscar-winning actor and stand-up comedian Robin Williams. Despite recently having a heart valve replacement, he was as energetic as ever, bouncing around the stage in a sweatsuit and a full beard. (He'd make a funny Santa Claus, Hollywood.) I made the mistake of not waiting around after the show, but a couple of the guys in the band did stay and said he made sure to sign anything and shake every hand he could. He's been described as our "number one fan," and I certainly gained a new level of respect for his dedication. His show was, of course, hysterically funny, and I won't say much more about it other than to mention that he did an impression of his character "Mrs. Doubtfire" as if she were a porn star.
All in all, it was a fun evening and definitely a nice change of pace for us. Even in the cold air, it seemed everyone had a good time. Just don't tell Lewis Black that I have an iPhone.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Executive Visit

I was recently asked if the band had played for any VIP's since arriving at Kandahar Air Field, and until this past Wednesday, December 15, the answer was "no." But that changed this week when we were told that Wednesday, Ivan Gasparovic, the President of the Slovak Republic (more commonly called Slovakia) would be visiting the base. I don't know the specific purpose of his visit, but there is a sizable contingent of Slovakian Soldiers at KAF.

The band members met early Wednesday morning to prepare for the arrival. We hauled our chairs, music stands, and instruments over to the reception area by the runway. I made sure to wear several layers under the uniform to protect against the biting cold air. Once we had our things set up, it was a matter of waiting for the arrival. A group of Slovakian troops were situated next to us holding their flag. We were given updates every so often: "Twenty minutes," "ten minutes," and so on. Our set list alternated between typical Sousa marches and Fillmore marches and Christmas songs. I have no idea if any of our popular Christmas music is known in Slovakia, but playing music helped us ignore the cold so we didn't worry about that too much. Our commander made sure to include Sousa's "Hands Across the Sea" march, which was written to commemorate international friendship. What didn't help was that about the time we started playing, the wind began to blow. On one of the Christmas tunes, my stand nearly blew over and the other trombonist held my stand while I played!

Finally, the large white airplane with the Slovakian flag and the words SLOVAK REPUBLIC painted on the side pulled up behind where we were sitting. We continued waiting while...nothing happened. After an uncomfortably long wait we found out that they were still waiting for someone to roll out the steps to the airplane door! When the mobile walkway finally emerged, it seemed like they took two or three tries at the plane's front door before moving to the middle exit. I'm sure there was a good reason for it, but it made the event a little more amusing for us.

When the official party finally began walking toward the reception area, we began to play the Slovakian anthem "Lightning Over the Tatras." Members of the Slovakian press (I presume) made sure to get footage of the band while we played, but the President and much of his entourage quickly moved inside, and I can't blame them given the cold weather. When they returned to get into the fleet of cars that would transport them around the post, President Gasparovic made sure to give the band a salute. It's always nice to have the man of the hour acknowledge the band! Once the cars pulled away, we began to pack up and get ready for the rest of the otherwise normal workday. Later, though, we found out about some more visitors who would be coming Thursday, and those visitors will be the subject of the next blog!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Building the Perfect...Tent?!

Wow, time is flying--I didn't realize it's been ten days since my last post. Recent days have been busy, between rehearsals, a Saturday lunch performance with the Brass Quintet, and the band's latest project: a building. Or, rather, tent.

One of the biggest obstacles we've had to overcome since our arrival is that Kandahar Air Field has not yet had a band stationed here. Because of that, there is no facility set aside for the band to use. The various ensembles in the band have used classrooms, dining halls, the Fest Tent, the Morale-Welfare-Recreation center, the USO reading room, unoccupied sleeping quarters, bomb shelters, and open parking lots to rehearse, practice, and prepare. Doing so has meant that we have had to lug our instruments and equipment everywhere we go and that our work schedule is often at the mercy of what room is available and when. And with the recent dropping of temperatures, coupled with a few days of very dusty air, practicing outdoors is not as feasible as it used to be. Almost since we got here we've been negotiating and maneuvering to get a location just for us.

That began to become a reality this past Saturday, December 11 when the workers from the KAF carpentry shop arrived to start laying down the wooden floor in an open spot we were able to reserve. We had picked up the lumber from the freight yard a few weeks ago, and in that time they had cut boards and supports to build a floor.

Sunday, the tent arrived. The entire complex and all the necessary gear to set it up fit on a medium-size trailer. First, a tarp was laid out on the wooden floor, and a large deflated black ballon (or bladder, if you will) was placed on the tarp. We wheeled the main tent structure, which was "collapsed" into a tall column, into the center of the floor. Several of us pulled the edges of the tent to the edge of the floor, stretching the outer skin and making visible the support trusses that would give it stability. An air pump was connected to the bladder, and in a matter of minutes the tent began to take shape as the balloon stretched the structure to its full size. The full procedure took about thirty minutes. We actually had to deflate the tent the first time to get the front and rear entrance points attached and aligned properly, so it took two tries before we could begin deflating the balloon. Once deflated, it was simple to pull the balloon out, leaving the tent standing on its own support structure.

The rest of Sunday afternoon was spent hammering in stakes around the perimeter of the tent to hold it firmly in place and attaching the interior metal supports to keep the roof from collapsing. By the end of the day, the civilian experts who were assisting us with the tent decided that the floor was a little too small for the tent and we'd need more lumber.

Monday morning, we started inside to finish the interior supports and began setting up the environmental controls. The tent has its own generator for power, with large tubes connected to an air conditioner/heater. We installed the porous flexible tube that substitutes for air ducts, and hung the flourescent lights from the ceiling. By that point, the carpenters were back, cutting more wood to extend the floor around the tent. This meant that all the hammering we had done Sunday had to be pulled up and redone, but by the end of the day we were finished and the tent was solidly in place.

I haven't even mentioned the Velcro. The front and side entrances are attached with Velcro. This is not Velcro like you see at craft shops, or even the Velcro that is used on our uniforms. This is heavy-duty, massively strong Velcro. I think I could attach the Velcro on my uniform sleeves to the Velcro on this tent and hang from it. (Note: I did not actually try do this.) We spent much of our two days unsticking and resticking Velcro, and I think we are all pretty much tired of dealing with that substance for a while.

But we have a "home," for the time being. While it is not the best permanent solution, it gives us our own place to do much of the work we are here to do. Stay tuned, as we hope to install some practice rooms before too long....

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Your 2010 Military Care Package Guide

A few people have asked me about what types of things are good to mail to Soldiers overseas. I can attest to the fact that it is a great feeling to get mail here, even if it's from people you don't know that well. Not only is it nice to get letters, newspaper clippings, and snack food, but the knowledge that someone took the time to send something to you always makes the day a little better. Mail is delivered here seven days a week, even on holidays, so when I got packages on Thanksgiving Day it made the holiday that much more memorable. They recommend sending Christmas items by December 7. Not that there's anything wrong with getting stuff after Christmas also. There are handy tips about the mailing process at the US Postal Service website and if you do a Google search on "care packages" you'll find several websites with ideas and information. Here are some other guidelines:

*One of the guidelines for sending items to Afghanistan is that a Soldier's last name goes first. This helps the mail clerks with keeping things organized.

*Don't put a recipient's rank on the package.

*Don't send things with batteries in them.

*Don't send pornographic materials. (I partly wonder if this is because there periodicals...available at the PX and they don't want you cutting into their market. I don't buy any of them, but they're there.)

*Don't send flammable or explosive items, i.e. lighter fluid, gunpowder, bleach.

*Microwaves are not available here so items that require cooking, like Ramen noodles, are not good things to send unless you know someone who likes to eat them cold and/or raw.

*Don't send fresh fruit. It may not be fresh when it arrives.

*Prepackaged foods are good because they are less likely to spoil. Beef jerky is popular here.

*Homemade foods (cookies, brownies, etc.) are good because...well, they're good.

*If they are soft or crumbly, like Pop Tarts or Little Debbie snacks, put them in some kind of solid container to protect them.

*The cereal selection isn't good here, so I asked my parents to send some Honey Nut Cheerios, which they sent in the plastic bag from inside the box. Made breakfast a lot better!

*Some things, like raisins, gummy stuff, or big puffy marshmallows, are fine for sending, though they aren't good things to send to me because I just don't care for them. If I get them, I share them with others who do like them.

*Someone sent me a foot-tall Christmas tree and some decorating items, so decorations aren't in demand in my room.

*DVDs and CDs are good because they are relatively small, durable, and provide entertainment. Paperback books are also a very good option. Most people here have laptop computers with disc drives. Even though I stored a lot of movies, music, and television shows on my computer, portable hard drive, and iPhone, it's always nice to have another option to throw in there and enjoy during my down time.

*Foot powder, hand lotion, Band Aids, and Kleenex are always good options.

*Paper and envelopes are hard to come by here, so if you want a response by mail stationery is a fine thing to send as well.

If you have other ideas or questions, leave a comment or email me!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Q&A, part FIVE

They're adding some new shops to KAF's boardwalk area, and I thought this sign was amusing.
It's holiday season now, and we're all spending more time on preparing Christmas carols and other seasonal songs to play for the troops. We've also spent some time doing some training with members of the nearby Afghan National Army Band, and I expect I'll write more about that as it develops. I will say that even though we have a translator, it does test everyone's skill at non-verbal communication since they don't speak English and none of us speak Dari. Now, it's time for a couple more questions!

What's with the odd time difference between Afghanistan and the United States?

I don't know how the time zones in this part of the world were established-it may have something to do with railroad schedules way back when, and possibly be influenced by the time when nearby Pakistan and India were British colonies. But currently, since Afghanistan does not observe Daylight Savings Time, the whole country is nine and a half hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone in the United States. According to this time zone map, it seems we are sandwiched in an odd area and being offset by 30 minutes was someone's attempt to compensate for this. India is one hour ahead of us, so they also are "in the cracks" with respect to the US time zones. Pakistan, sandwiched between India and Afghanistan, is ten hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, 30 minutes ahead of Afghanistan and 30 behind India. Iran, immediately to our west, is one hour behind us, and 30 minutes behind them is Saudi Arabia. Since most of my family is in the Central Time Zone in Tennessee (one of the few states to be split between two time zones), they are ten and a half hours behind me, which makes planning phone calls on Skype a bit tricky sometimes. Interestingly, the island of Newfoundland in Canada has its own time zone, which is also 30 minutes ahead of Labrador to the west.

Do you have normal working hours, or are you "on call" all of the time?

We have somewhat stable hours most of the time, though the nature of the job can make it unpredictable. Like performing musicians in the US, our schedule is often dictated by when we have to perform regardless of whether or not it's personally convenient. On weekdays we typically all meet up in the morning to go over the day's schedule, and then again after lunch to update everyone on any changes and get briefed for the next day. After each meeting, we usually have time to do individual practice, group rehearsal, or take care of any office work that might need to be done, which in my case is usually something related to supply, i.e. filling out paperwork for the battalion requesting new ink for the printer or valve oil for the trumpets. On weekends we have the mornings off but still meet up in the afternoon. Since our performances have ranged from dinner music for a General's reception to morning ceremonies to lunch entertainment, we will often have to adjust the schedule accordingly. And sometimes they'll find ways to surprise us by springing a change at the last minute. That can make things frustrating, though such changes generally come from outside the band, and may be impacted by events and decisions that are out of our field of view. Most days, though, things have been much more stable the past few weeks than they were when we first arrived and everyone was figuring out how to best make things work. Famous last words....