Liberia

A West African Cane Beats TSA

Posted on Updated on

West Africa shirt

Rarely do I find anything nice to say about the TSA. Thanks to the events of September 11, the overzealous efforts of Congress, and the willingness to surrender more of our freedoms, Homeland Security began to make life much more difficult for travelers.

Personally, I resent the intrusions imposed on American citizens simply using airlines as a quick mode of transportation from one part of the US to another. However, I do have some appreciation for the protection airport security seems to have provided in keeping terrorists from boarding airplanes again.

Strangely, those same terrorists though can still just walk across a very unsecured border from Mexico into the US or from just about any part of Canada into the US as well. But I digress as that would be a story for another day.

In 2012, our family moved from Liberia, West Africa back to the United States. As we prepared to depart, we checked our bags and entered the Duty Free Zone at the Roberts International Airport located in Monrovia. While there, we availed ourselves of one last shopping experience as we purchased several Liberian artifacts from the various shops.

One of my purchases was a very nice walking cane that had been carved by a local artist. It was carved out of one of the hardwood trees that are found in abundance throughout West Africa. Before making my purchase, I asked to verify that there would be no issues in getting my cane through customs as we made our way first to Europe and then back to the US.

Assured that there would be no problems, I purchased the beautiful walking stick and we prepared to board the plane.

Nobody said a word to me about the cane and one or two stewardesses even commented on the beauty of the hardwood as well as the artist’s skill.

Arriving in Brussels, Belgium, we proceeded to walk through the entire airport for about five hours. Not once did anybody stop me or ask me if the cane was some kind of a weapon. Common sense prevailed and again I had a couple of staff members comment on how nice a cane I had. At no point did I attempt to walk with it. There was nothing on the bottom to prevent it from slipping on the tiled airport floors and it was really only for decoration.

We arrived back to the US and landed in an airport on the east coast. Disembarking, we had to get all of our bags, go through Customs, and then to make our connecting flight, we had to recheck our bag and go through Security again.

Remember, I have been carrying my new West African cane through three different airports on three different continents. Not one time did anybody question me about why I was carrying this cane with me. Not one time did any police or soldiers follow me and wonder if I was going to attack somebody with my prized possession.

Until we had to go through TSA security to fly from one US to another.

Having already been up for way too many hours, we did not want to have to deal with another inconvenience, but had no choice.

Finally arriving at the front of the line, the TSA staff member took one look at my cane and said, “You cannot take that with you on the plane!”

She was NOT rude about it, but simply had a job to do.

I asked what I was supposed to do with it. Her response was that I would have to check it in and it would go into the hold of the plane. However, I knew full well that somewhere along the way that my exquisitely carved cane would disappear and would never make it to our final stop in Memphis, Tennessee where we had family waiting to pick us up and welcome us back to the US.

I graciously told the TSA staff member that I was not prepared to put my nice new cane and asked why there should be a problem. I told her that we had now crossed three continents and three airports without one concern.

She looked at my wife and I for a minute and responded.

“The only way that you can take the cane on the plane is if it is a medical device.”

I looked back at her and said, “But it is not a medical device.”

She paused, looked at my wife again, and spoke again but emphasized a few words.

“Sir, the ONLY way that YOU can take the cane ON the plane is IF it is a medical device!”

My wife nudged me as she caught on a little quicker than I had done. “Sweetheart, she is saying that you have to use it as an actual cane.”

Not wanting to be dishonest in anyway, it was true that I had been sick in Liberia. In fact, one of my daughters and I had almost died. While I did not use the cane to walk around, it often hurt just to walk. My joints ached from the ravages of severe cases of typhoid and malaria, but I did not want to mislead the TSA staff member either. While in Liberia, I did have to use a walking stick regularly to help support myself at times while on the various roads and trails in the jungles.

“Yes, I can use my cane as a medical device.” I informed her hoping that with such a declaration she would let us pass and we could board our fourth and final flight.

The TSA staffer said, “Sir, in order to let you take the cane on the airplane, I will have to see you actually using the cane as a medical device or aid to walking.”

Are you kidding me?

The bottom of the cane was slick wood and we were on a slick tiled floor. By the time I was done demonstrating my “need” for a cane, I probably would need a real cane or a wheelchair.

However, not wanting to lose my cane, I decided it was best to oblige. With a few slightly exaggerated limps, I sashayed, glided, and attempted to do-ci-do across the TSA Security enclosure while making sure that I did not slip, fall to the floor, and crack my head open.

With a wry smile, she responded. “Yep, looks like you definitely need your medical device. Have a safe trip!”

It was all I could do to keep a straight face as I used my medical device to limp my way around the corner and away from the TSA area.

I still have that cane and every time I see it, it reminds me of the day that a West African cane was allowed to beat TSA at their own game.

To the kind, unnamed TSA staff member, “Thank you and walk on!”

Poor in West Africa

Posted on

West African woman

Currently, I am in the process of finishing my second book which is a memoir of my first visit to Liberia, West Africa in 2007.

This small country used to be prosperous, but a devastating 14-year civil war absolutely decimated it. Infrastructure such as electricity and running water is only now starting to come back to better standards but mainly only in places like the capital of Monrovia. Traveling outside of Monrovia will find badly damaged unpaved roads that are almost impassable during the rainy season.

Villages and towns across the vast majority of Liberia still have no electricity or running water. Many villages have wells provided by a variety of NGOs (non-government organizations), but the jobs were not finished. I have personally seen and stayed in villages where the well was dug but the proper equipment to procure the water at the surface was non-existent.

The 14-year civil war killed an estimated 10% of the population and left thousands of children as orphans. The war caused a massive drop in the economy by over 90% and made it the 4th poorest country in the world in 2007. Those able to gain employment made an average of $1 per day.

Many still do not work and a published rate of literacy at 60% means that many have no ability do not have the necessary skills to do more than farm. Education is compulsory for children up to 16, but this is rarely enforced. More times than not, teachers are not available outside of Monrovia and the students who get passed to the next grade do so because the parents can bribe the system.

It was to this country that I took my first trip in January 2007. I visited parts of the country under the control of the United Nations, which is probably one of the most corrupt organizations in the world. Soldiers were often left to their own devices. Theft and sexual abuse of the locals was common. None of those involved in these crimes were ever punished. Any crime by the UN would be overlooked as long as a bribe was easily forthcoming.

When I arrived on one of two commercial flights in and out of the country per week, I learned within three hours that I had been duped. Scammed into leaving the comforts of my home in England, I simply wanted to get back on a plane and get out of the steaming jungles of this country for which I had no love.

Over the course of the next two weeks, my heart and mind changed. To this day, I still have a great love for the people of Liberia despite what occurred both on that trip, subsequent trips, and later a move that almost cost the lives of my oldest daughter and myself due to multiple cases of typhoid and malaria.

During my trip, I had the privilege of visiting a few marketplaces where I saw some of the incredible workmanship that goes into West African national costumes. Most of them were out of my budget, but I managed to have enough to purchase gifts for my wife and my children.

The final few days were a flurry of activity as I preached and taught in several locations. Preaching while standing in buildings with metal roofs, the temperatures soared well above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In one location, I taught while just around the corner children as young as three or four scrounged in a trash dump looking for scraps of food or something to try and salvage.

My first trip to Liberia made me realize that I was rich. I could not keep up with the expatriates who had companies footing the bill. My role there was a teacher and I had paid my own way to and from the country. However, I was blessed by the richness that I found in the hearts of the people.

My showers were done with one scoop at a time out of a large 55 gallon water bucket. In a land where many were happy to get one meal a day, I learned to appreciate oatmeal every morning for breakfast with a cup of strong coffee. In the evening, one of the local pastors and his family prepared a lovely Liberian meal. It was only towards the end of my visit that I realized that they had provided meat for me at the expense of not getting any themselves.

In one of my last preaching opportunities, the people had prepared a wonderful smelling meal. It tasted really good and each person kept insisting that I get some of the meat in the pot. By now, I understood what they were doing and with my stomach already giving me problems, I was able to encourage them to share.

At the end of the meeting, they asked me to step to the front for a “robing.” Imagine my surprise when the leaders of the church pulled out one of the most exquisite outfits I had ever seen. It was fit for a king or a tribal chief, yet, they were giving it to me.

In my heart, I did not deserve such respect. I had only sought to teach them the Bible, but they were honoring me. It was not until my second trip back to Liberia that I understood what that gift had cost that small congregation. They had given sacrificially in so many ways in order to give the absolute best that they could.

That outfit has traveled with me everywhere I have gone for the last twelve years. It holds a special place in my heart, but not because of the material nor because of the amount of money that Liberian outfit cost. The garments are special because they were given from a heart of love and out of appreciation for what they had learned.

Today, I am in constant contact with some of the people I was able to train. They have never asked me for one single dollar, even though this is common in many parts of West Africa. Each email or phone call always concludes with them telling me thank you again for going to Liberia.

Because of them, I am truly rich.

The Stupid ATM Machine

Posted on Updated on

ATM pic

The road of life has never been easy. I have long struggled with health issues, some of them that brought me close to death. However, in the midst of all the struggles, even when living deep, DEEP in the steamy jungles of Liberia, West Africa, we never went without a meal and we have managed to always pay our bills.

Now, I tend to be the kind of person who likes things to be a certain way. In the early years of our marriage, life was difficult on many levels. This was especially true when it came to finances. We can remember having to determine whether we wanted to live off of rice and beans or macaroni and ground beef in order to purchase necessities for our babies.

It seemed that every time we managed to save just a little that another big bill would show up. I was already working two jobs (1 full-time, and 1 part-time) for about 65 hours per week just to make ends meet. My wife and I only had one vehicle and still only have one to this day, but we were thankful that our situation was much better than most of the world.

Ok, let’s rewind to that last sentence and try to clarify.

You see, while I was working as a word processing specialist in the day, and then loading boxes into big trucks at all hours, I was NOT actually being very thankful. However, my wife was thankful because it allowed her to be a stay-at-home mom.

One incident that remains me to this day is just as clear as if it had just happened. The main reason is probably because it helped me to adjust my attitude on life.

In approximately 1991 or 1992, we lived in the US state of North Carolina. We were hoping to purchase a little home, but could never seem to save up enough to even pay our monthly bills.

One hot August day, we took our station wagon (an estate for UK readers) to the mechanic and learned it was going to take about $400 to make necessary repairs. That was a lot of money in the early 90’s and we had only managed to just save up about $500 or $600 in the bank account.

Going to my bank, I pulled up to the ATM Cash Machine while muttering under my breath about how unfair life was treating us. Ok, another confession, my wife was sitting beside me with our babies in the back, but I was actually complaining about how unfair life was treating me.

I took out my wallet, grabbed my ATM card and jammed it into the machine. In a careless manner, I punched in my PIN code and waited.

The machine hummed and whirred and then spit my card back out. On the screen, the words “ERROR — INVALID CODE” appeared.

Already frustrated, I verified the PIN code with my wife and jammed the card back into the machine. Slowly, with great deliberation, and muttering quite profusely, I slowly entered my PIN once again.

The machine hummed and whirred and then spit my card back out. On the screen, the words “ERROR — INVALID CODE” appeared again.

By now, I was quite furious. Life was going downhill once again and I could not even access my bank account.

The sun was setting low in the sky and I had a lucid moment and thought that maybe a reflection on the machine was not allowing my PIN code to go through.

Putting the car in Park, I stepped out of my vehicle and stood close to the machine. I had the presence of mind to know that if you entered the PIN code incorrectly three times in quick succession that the machine would swallow your card. This would have created an even bigger headache as it was almost 5pm on a Friday evening.

Not so carefully and with only a cursory glance at my card, I jammed it into the machine for my third and final attempt while muttering about stupid banks and how they conspired to keep my money just when I needed it the most.

Oh no!!

Quicker than Jack being nimble while jumping over the candlestick, I mashed the CANCEL button for all that I was worth. The machine whirred and hummed before FINALLY reluctantly spitting out my card.

With my wife sitting quite calmly in her seat watching me, I waved my card at her as she just laughed. I am sure she was laughing WITH me and not AT me, but I suddenly felt very, VERY foolish when I realized that the card in my hand was NOT my debit card.

It was my Driver’s License!

North Carolina had recently introduced a magnetic stripe on the back and with the sun’s bright glare I had mistaken my driver’s license for my debit card. Yes, that is the story that I am sticking with — it MUST have been the sun!

Even to this day, almost 20 years later, I still keep my driver’s license together in my wallet with my debit cards. Every time I pull up to an ATM machine, I never fail to remember the story of how I had to be taught a lesson in humility.

Since that time, we have moved to England twice, to Liberia, West Africa, and now reside permanently in the USA. Through the years, that experience has helped me to realize how truly blessed my family and I have been. Never hungry and richer in so many ways more than the vast majority of the world, I know that I need to take time to assess each situation that we encounter.

Is it really worth getting angry or upset when God has been so good to me?

Does my life have to be in such a hurry that I cannot take enough time to verify which card I am trying to put into the ATM?

If I am in that much of a hurry, then there are probably other things wrong in my mind and heart that need to be dealt with.

My life may not be what I was hoping when I was younger. My bank accounts will probably never reflect the savings I wish they had. My car may not be the best, biggest, or fastest. However, what I have is far more than I deserve.

Take time to slow down today.

 

PS — I pulled out the correct card with my wife still laughing at me and gently inserted it into the ATM Cash Machine which promptly delivered the required $400 I needed to pay the bill.

A Dinner to Remember

Posted on Updated on

The day silently approached but I am not sure I was ready. Sitting around a table, I struggled to understand why I should enjoy what seemed like a simple dinner. It was not fancy and only a small selection graced the plain wood table that sat like a lone sentinel in the middle of the room.

Only two months had passed since we had returned from Liberia, West Africa. The pain of those days remains but a clouded and distant memory. The dreams and aspirations to make a difference were gone, but family still remained.

I looked around to the empty chairs where my sons once sat, but even they were gone. Serving their country in the USAF, the most recent visit had concluded just that week as our middle son returned to his duty station. The house was quiet and even my wife and two young girls sat looking forlorn.

Thanksgiving Day was meant to be a time of rejoicing and being thankful. Yet, I struggled. Depression and lingering tropical illnesses surged through my mind and body making daily living a drudge. Living in a new town selected for the access to a tropical medicine specialist, we were far from friends and family and the work I could do kept us from making a cross-country trip.

Yet, as I stared at the plates of food resting in front of the four of us, I still had much for which to give thanks. The food on our table and in our fridge would have easily fed many of the poor Liberians that lived near our jungle home. Yet, the amount of food was still a reminder of the days we had only had rice and plantains to eat. We had electricity and running water. Our fridge ran night and day keeping drinks cold and food preserved to use another day.

Our bathrooms were clean and the water we used to bathe was just as crystal clear as the water we drank from the kitchen faucet. Our drinking water was not beige or yellowy in color and we did not fear the possibility of mind-destroying bacteria being present in our glasses. While I caught myself staring at the shower drain sometimes, I did not have to worry about a deadly spider or venomous devil snake coming up the pipes.

dinner

My wife and girls were both with me and my oldest daughter had not died from the severe case of malaria that still causes her and I problems every now and then. Unlike some who have buried family members in foreign lands, we had returned together as passengers on regularly scheduled commercial flights.

That evening as we sat in the comfort of our home, time stood still as we recalled where we had recently been living. Living in a mud brick home in the sweltering jungles of West Africa had given us a new found appreciation for the simple pleasures of life. Our home had little furniture and none of it was fancy. Our fridge held enough food to get us through another weekend. Our bills were paid and we were still together.

It was Thanksgiving Day and a dinner to remember.

Written for Warrior Writers Prompt #35

View at Medium.com

10 Things Most Don’t Know About Me

Posted on Updated on

Spitfire_F_VB_BM597

Well, I have decided to accept the challenge presented by Violet to tell ten things about myself that most people do not know.

First, I was born at an early age. Ok, actually, this one probably doesn’t count, because most people already know this about me.

Seriously, here goes the list.

1. I have a very long-term memory and have the distinct ability to remember events, places, and people from my childhood as if they were present today. The earliest memories I have come from before I was two years old.

2. I used to have hair — lots of hair. When I was born, I was nicknamed Elvis and my long straight jet-black hair was swept back over my head. This probably helped to add to the persona. However, as the oldest of six children, I have the distinct privilege of being the only one to have had several hair color changes. A few months after I was born, my hair turned from black to an orangey-red with lots of curls. By the time I was 18 months old, my hair had turned to white-blond, and then to brown. Around six or seven, it turned to dark brown which it remained until it started to turn gray and loose.

3. I have lived on every continent that I have visited. Born in England, I have lived in Iceland, Scotland, the USA, and Liberia, West Africa. I have visited several other countries, but no more than a visit. One of my favorite locations to live was Iceland and have made a few visits back since becoming an adult. My long-time goal is to visit (or maybe retire) to South Island, New Zealand.

4. One of my fears is the riding of roller-coasters. I was born with sight in my left eye only. The pupil in my right eye is fake and was an implant when I was less than a year old. With only monocular vision, I have no depth perception and riding many carnival type rides is very scary. Having said that, I have only ever ridden one (1) roller-coaster and it would be my future wife, Violet, that managed to convince me to ride on the horrid thing on our very first date! When the week-long journey to hell and back concluded after less than 1 minute, and the gyrating metal and wooden beast had thrown me out of its belly like the whale did with Jonah, Violet promised that she would never ask me to go on one again if I would just marry her. So, I did and here we are 29 years later! That’s my story (for this week) and I’m sticking to it!

5. One of my oldest wishes, after watching my dad take a glider flight in Iceland, was to be able to go gliding myself. It was not until over 40 years later when my two youngest sons purchased a glider flight ticket for me in northern California that I was able to fulfill that wish. It was an incredible ride and I was able to spend time flying the aircraft as well.

6. Languages have always fascinated me. When I was in high school, I began learning Icelandic from a course produced by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). I have taken the following languages at university: Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and Greek. I can read and speak basic Esperanto (look it up), and am currently being tutored in Mandarin Chinese. I think this new language endeavor is actually my favorite.

7. I have pastored or started churches in England, the USA, and Liberia, West Africa. All of my degrees are in theology with a minor in Biblical languages.

8. Currently, I love being a realtor. However, most people do not know that I have passed and held professional licenses in the field of insurance and the funeral industry. My illustrious career has included time as a Word Processing Specialist (I type over 80 wpm), a data analyst for the London Stock Exchange (yes, in London), a pastor and missionary, a loan officer, an insurance agent, and a funeral director and cemetery manager (for almost 8 years).

9. My favorite hobby was building model planes and at one time had 31 different military planes hanging from my bedroom ceiling, all of which I built. My favorite plane to this day is the Supermarine Spitfire, which was one of the heroes of the Battle of Britain during the early days of World War II. There is nothing so sweet as the deep-throated roar of a Rolls Royce Merlin engine.

10. Finally, I have taken my wife, a sister and a brother, and illegally crossed international borders. This occurred over a period of hours and in just one hour crossed a border four different times, all of which were done illegally. The first two were done unwittingly, the next two times involved a little subterfuge in order to get back to the country we were supposed to be in. Maybe I will have to write about it. To this day, I am not sure whether Interpol is still looking for me or not, but my wife and siblings have never forgotten the hair-raising adventures. By the way, I should probably introduce myself. The name is Bond. Mark Bond from Her Majesty’s Secret Service!

PS — As an extra treat, number 11 is worth more than a postscript and will involve another story here one day soon. Shortly after marrying Violet, I convinced her that I was a true-to-life spy working with the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) in the US Air Force. I pulled it off for just over three weeks!

My First Interview

Posted on Updated on

I had the privilege of being interviewed by Parker J Cole of “Write Stuff.”  This was my first interview about my book “Heroes of Courage.”  I also had the honor of being able to speak about Liberia which is still very close to my heart.

 

Thanksgiving Day

Posted on

Here in the United States, we celebrate a special day called Thanksgiving Day. However, every day should be a day of thanksgiving, no matter where you live.

There-is-always-something-to-be-thankful-forIf you have family, you should be thankful.

If you have food on your table, you should be thankful.

If you have clothes on your back, you should be thankful.

If you have a place to shelter from the elements, you should be thankful.

If you have the ability to read, you should be thankful.

We could go on for a long time, but there are many who do not enjoy these privileges we often take for granted. I lived in Liberia, West Africa with my family and I know what true poverty looks like. What is humbling is that many of the people I met while working there were still thankful for what they had.

They still had life, even if they had nothing else.