“Sir, let me refill your wine sir. Can I get you anything else sir?” The wine glass was full. I wasn’t drinking it. had been offered so many times, I said yes to be left alone. It did not work.
There was always one or two hotel staff hovering, in the event we needed something. I was uncomfortable with the attention, having grown up poor in South Philly. I was uncomfortable with complaining, as I had no doubt the man needed the job and he would be beaten or discharged if I said a word. I wondered if I farted if the young Ethiopian man would come behind me and fan. Perhaps he would breath deeply to cleanse the air. I tipped heavily, out of guilt for my unmerited favor for the accident of my birth in America. Also, a mere American dollar could feed a family for a week here. The Hyatt Regency in Addis Abba pampered me like a king. I walked the grounds, watching the fancy water fountains shoot water from one spot to another, the native cultural music and dancers performing, and relaxed in the beautiful weather.
It was nothing like my last visit. Nothing at all. The hotel campus was surrounded by a wall with sharp glass on top, Africa’s version of barbed wire. If you went outside the wall and drove a mile or so east, you would make a right at the naked beggar standing on the median singing the song from the feed the children TV commercial, then you would pass the city dump. It was piled high with bones that looked bovine, and piled higher with vultures staking out their spot on the mountain of bones looking ominous. You would then come to the mission house where we stayed when I was on mission. We were the only servants there. There was no wine there either, only communion grape juice and only on Sundays. I remember playing soccer with the street children, who played soccer with a can—they were so excited to get a ball. Giving out candy was a joyous riot.
I remember the children the most. They haunt me. I failed them.
Our team had only briefly stopped in Addis, to change planes to a place in Somalia we were supposed to keep secret so we didn’t put anyone’s lives in jeopardy. We had been smuggling in cash American to do famine relief. We saved people. We saved them for a month maybe. The money we spent went to local non-government authorities. It turns our that local non government authority was Al Qaeda. Its worse. The UN freely gave the food to Al Qaeda to distribute, but they locked it up to sell to folks like us, to buy guns, bombs, and assorted killing devices. Did I kill more children, or help more children? I failed.
I remember when we were done giving out food. In my mind I pictured smiling faces, thank you’s, conversions to Jesus. Naïve much? It was chaos. We ran for the Land Rover. We were mobbed. We had to execute a maneuver where the driver floored it until it got up to speed and slammed on the brakes, to shake off all the people hanging on to our vehicle, hoping to kill us, or perhaps just angry that we were not starving and they were. Who can blame the starving when they do sketchy things when they try to survive? Maslow was right. Starving people with no security were not interested in spiritual matters, if life were a video game they were in beast mode. Ditto, for us, throwing people off the vehicle. There was one man who hung on after we made our get away to open road. I remember watching him in the rear view mirror, when he finally fell off the back bumper, doing uncomfortable uncontrolled somersaults at 40 miles an hour, until he finally stopped, his limbs at un-natural angles.
I remember the children the most. They haunt me. I failed them.
“You look as if you are somewhere else, my friend.” said Blade. If I was the brains of the operation, he was the brawn. Blade was a former Navy Seal, and owner of his own private security firm. He was from Saint Thomas, and was black. Unlike most professionals, he had long braided Rastafarian hair. One might say beautiful. He was a man who could kill you more ways than one could imagine, so I would be careful calling him beautiful. I knew that the hair was extensions that would pull away if grabbed in hand to hand combat, and served to hide all manner of gadgets we might need.
“I was just singing some Jimmy Buffett songs to myself in my head. That man is a genius, isn’t he?”
Blade frowned and said, “Why not Paul Simon?”
This was an inside joke with Blade and I. We had met when we were both on active duty in the Navy, and had stood many a long and boring night watch together. He had mentioned he was from Saint Thomas. This was redundant. His accent gave him away as he sure wasn’t Irish, and that wasn’t a brogue. As a way of connecting, I mentioned I loved Caribbean music and started singing my favorite Buffett tune, “Mother, mother Ocean…..” You would have thought I called him a bad name, insulted his mother, and kicked him in the nuts all at the same time. Blade had gone off like a fire cracker.
“That man is a thief! He is a rapist of the black man!” He went off on a tirade about Buffett. I didn’t get all of it, because I was in shock. I was just trying to make a connection, find a point of commonality as we patrolled our little navigational box of water, waiting for the signal to go on our counter narcotics operation and take down some bad guys. I am not a parrot head. I don’t care that much about a sketchy guy getting rich by making drinking songs to help sell beer to the masses.
“He is no different than a slave owner, keeping the black man on plantations.” I should have paid more attention to his rant. I thought I would change the subject. “Well, I like African music too. I really just love Paul Simon’s Graceland album,” I said innocently. Naïve much? This was like filling up your barbecue with gasoline and lighting a match. He just stopped talking and stalked off to the other bridge wing, to regain his composure. Apparently the songs that these white men wrote were really just some added lyrics to existing music of the native culture, and the already rich old white men profited by it while the cultures from which they had lifted the music remained poor. There was more grounds for plagiarism than the famous case where the Beatle George Harrison had been forced to pay a huge settlement, the difference being it was other old rich white men with means suing him. I don’t know or care enough about music to agree or disagree with his argument, but it is plausible.
We made friends and could joke about it now. “I must say, the influence of African music is quite clear to me on my native music,” said Blade. It was true. It wasn’t the same, But one could see clear connections in the meter, the melodies, the tenor, and the instruments used.
“Blade, can I ask you a philosophical question without you going all full metal jacket on my like you did when we first met? Excuse my ignorance and give me some Grace?”
Blade smiled and said, “My friend, I know you to be more ignorant and in need of God’s Grace than most anyone, go ahead— shoot.”
“ I assembled our technical team. You put together the security team. I wanted all American former military, all African American, colored, person of color, whatever the hell I am allowed to say…”
Blade interrupted me “ I got it, you the only cracka on the team,” and laughed.
“When I did mission work, we were all crackers, all lily white. The permanent missionaries we worked with were from the whitest places on earth, like the UK and New Zealand. Why don’t black people want to help black people when they aren’t being paid large amounts of money? What is up with that?”
Blade scowled and said, “Now that’s obvious, isn’t it?” he took a drink of wine. “You look at these people, and you see extreme poverty. I look at them, and I see people who have it just a little bit worse than my friends outside another walled resort—like this one— but in Saint Thomas. Charity begins at home my friend. It’s that simple.”
Blade finished off his steak and took another sip of wine. “ You know what the real question is, cracka?
“Why do you white folk lock your doors when going through a black neighborhood, steal our music, and keep us down, but come over here and be all like Jesus and all—where none of your white friends can see you, so you can stay in the country club!”
“ You have a point,” I said. “But I’m trying to do a good thing here. I really am. Do you believe in the mission, or are you just in it for the money. I need to know, because when it hits the fan, if it hits the fan, I want to know who I can trust.”
“WE are doing an awesome thing here, and I am all for it. At first I wasn’t, I have to admit. I thought you were trying to pull a Liberia on me. The fact that we are loading these buses today, the fact that you, whitey, standing out like an albino cockroach in the caviar, means a lot.”
Liberia began as a settlement of those who “believed black people would face better chances for freedom and prosperity in Africa than in the United States.” Or put another way, by white people who didn’t like black people and who could no longer profit from slavery wanting to “ship them all back to Africa where they came from.”
We had created an oasis in the desert, in an area so hot, sandy, waterless, and desolate, American satellites didn’t overfly it often. I drank some wine and ruminated on how far we had come, all of the moving pieces to get to this point, the founding of our small city state in the desert. We thought we might call it Wakanda, after the imaginary place in the Black Panther movie, but I didn’t want to promote violence. We went with the name “New Vatican,” for many reasons. I had stolen the money to build it from the Vatican when I hacked their Swiss bank accounts, so technically they owned it. I was okay with them owning it, if they could somehow be convinced to make it part of the independent country of the Vatican, that would help politically when the world knew of us. It had been a fantastic operation. The new SMR nuclear reactor design was modular, and small enough to fit on a plane. We only needed one module, and with the speed of regulation, they didn’t even know it was gone yet. A connection of high school helped us on the long distance directional bore to the location from the ocean. It was all salt water, but no matter. We had established ourselves in a valley that we deepened and dug out water features. Mother Nature and modern water treatment equipment took care of that. We were loading up buses of the lost and forgotten, and taking them to New Vatican. My high school friend was the captain of our swimming team. I was the only white guy on the team. We won the championship three out of four years. Our AAU team competed against colleges. He turned that talent into a business.
We departed and picked up the buses at the airport. These were US military surplus designed for the conditions they might face. I remember the many times we spent on the side of the road jury rigging vehicles to run in my short time on mission.
“You are doing God’s work!” Said the missionary as he helped us load children and families if they existed on buses.
“We all loaded mon,” said Blade.
“Let’s move. Make it so number one” I told Blade, in my best Picard, which wasn’t very good.
Our caravan of two buses and a supply truck with extra fuel, and a couple of jeeps with security guys was the longest convoy we would do, so as to not attract attention. It was a long bumpy ride through almost non-exist roads, often blocked by sheep, more often with burned out tanks abandoned from the last war, or the one before on either side of the road. Ethiopia was the fifty yard line for most of the football games of war that had happened in the last couple centuries, at least in the region.
“Hey cracka, let me ask you something,” said Blade.
“ I hear you brag all the time about the how of New Vatican. On and on about your project management skills, the teams you assembled. I hear you bleed over the children. But why? Why New Vatican? When you stole the money, why not just send a check and feel good about yourself?”
“I told you what happens when you give money. They take it and kill each other with it.”
“Yeah, but you could have found someone to give it to, maybe your missionary friends?”
I took a deep breath, and tried to think where to begin. I thought of the arguments I had in grad school at war college with one of my professors.
“I helped found AFRICOM, a US command focused on Africa,” said Professor Ralph.
“All AFRICOM does to help is set up satellite bases to do drone strikes,” I said.
“Drone strikes are important,” said Ralph
“Look at all the money China is investing in Africa. We are losing to the Chinese!” Said Ralph
“They are building dams and infrastructure.Why don’t we do that? I’ll tell you why. They are bad investments because there is no security.”
Despite my intense disagreement with Professor Ralph and the fact that he didn’t make his case, fifty percent of my grade was based on a “when did you stop beating your wife” question, one that assumed AFRICOM was a good thing. So I thought about it, and made a plan for creating a colony in Africa. He rejected it as imperialist. I knew he would. That was the point. I thought he would maybe see AFRICOM was imperialist but in a way guaranteed to lose, but he would not see it.
“Thinking it through, if I do it as a private enterprise, if I populate it with indigenous people, that would be awesome!” I said.
In reality we spoke off and on for the 30 hours the trip took to complete.
We had just recently completed an airfield in New Vatican. The salt water that hadn’t been immediately converted to drinking water had been sprayed in the surrounding desert in the area designated by our environmental engineers. It had evaporated, formed clouds, and rained to fill our ponds and water our grass. A water cycle had been established with trees, grass and the shelter of the nearby man made mountains had kept it local.
What are you doing?” Blade asked.
“I am praying,” I told him.
“It is only a matter of time before New Vatican is discovered by a satellite or something. China will want it. The USA will want it. It is disputed land between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Entretea. All of this could be for naught. It could start another war. I reached out to the Pope.”
“You did what?” Said Blade.
“I talked to the Pope on the sat phone. I told him I took his money. I told him what I did with it. I invited him out to bless it, and asked him to own it at make it part of his Holy See.”
“No offense, but I’m still getting paid right?” Said Blade.
“Yes, the city is of greater value than what we stole, and our profit is the profit due any developer.”
They were a mile out when the desert started to turn to grass, the grass to bushes, the bushes to trees.
The skyline of New Vatican was glorious. We were a half a mile out when we heard it. It sounded like planes, but not planes.
The first Tomahawk cruise missile took out the power plant. The lights went off. Their were hundreds more. We stopped and watched. The city became a firestorm worthy of a Vonnegut novel, before our eyes. Airborne troops began to paratroop in as we left.
We turned around and went back to Addis Abba. Blade has mad skills, and helped us disappear, and get back to the USA. My face was all over CNN. I was a terrorist. It must be true, as CNN reported it. The tip had come from the Pope, who claimed I was trying to extort him. AFRICOM has a new base on the site of a terrorist training camp, that was very evil because of all the children, the dead children they found in the rubble.
I had a second chance to save the children. I failed them again.