Friday, June 26, 2015

At the end of the road, looking for the new road.

At the end of the road, looking for the new road.   

beauty in chaos with regularity
     In a lot of buddhism, the number 10,000 is special (perhaps because this was a special unit in Sanskrit, with its own word, like 'one hundred, one thousand', etc.  At any rate, allegedly, if one does 10,000 Grand Prostrations, apparently one is entitled to instant enlightenment, which I just see as another version of the Christian 'salvation'.  Alternatively, the number 108 is also magical in eastern religions, more a side effect of using the numbers 12 and 9, it seems to be used either for things which must be completed quickly (a chant, for example, or things which might take a lifetime , or even be unattainable (108 circumambulations of Mount Kailash, for example).
     Coming to Busan by trike, though it was my second time by Human Powered Vehicle, was a lot like doing 10,000 leg presses in a nine day period, since the setup of the gears and leg positions is a lot like that gym machine, especially where the flat is more like 30 kilo weights, and the steep hills are more like 150 kilo weights, and the whole machine is straining and groaning under your effort.
     After nine days, certain critical parts like the knees need rest, and throb under the covers of the cozy guesthouse you're booked into as a reward to yourself. The next morning all muscles are taut and screaming out into the universe, spitting in the face of entropy, the life force within you is pure and unobstructed.  City life has yet to take its toll on you, to make your pulse dull and irregular, to turn your eyes leaden, to dizzify you with 10,000 distractions.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Birds but not Birds (continued)

Huele Pega, or glue sniffers, who are often street urchins.
     Behind the story of the Birds but not Birds story below, is one of the saddest chapters of the Human Experience that I've ever had the misfortune to encounter.
     If Heroin is the dead end of artists and poets and others who wander down that alley, then Glue is the death of youth, of potential , of lives completely thrown away and wasted. Glue is the slow, lingering death, the numb blackness of the void out of which we all came; it is the stupidity of senseless life-taking industrial accidents and the driverless car smashing into societies' picket-fenced garden.
     I'm not sure that the Drug Addiction label applies exactly to this substance, which can be bought in a million shops worldwide, often for pennies.  I think of it as more of a fruit of poverty and abandonment.  Its use is most popular among the homeless street children of Latin America- perhaps it is an enabler for them, to endure their horrific situation, which means that they must sleep where they can, steal to eat, and endure countless other horrors at the hands of society and each other.
     I had put this story away into a deep, dark place in my consciousness, the details of which are fairly gruesome.  At the time I was living and experiencing this reality, it was perhaps the darkest visible aspect of poverty in large urban places I had briefly been in contact with (until Colombia, I had lived mostly in small towns in the mountains or beaches).  In fact, in going over my memories, I remembered that there was a rumor about one of the other boarders at a cheap hotel I had stayed at once, though I have no idea of the veracity, but others had said that one of our neighbors would purchase this glue, and would invite a young boy into his room, and there use the glue to abuse him.  This is the kind of thing that I still don't even want to allow into the realm of my imagination, and I apologize for breaking the peace of your mind as well, but this gives you an idea of the level of evil of this stuff.
     Of course, I didn't always see the urchins as merely victims.  They were more commonly viewed by the local people as adversaries.  Huele pega, or glue sniffers, are mostly homeless children who band into gangs of two or three, or sometimes ragamuffin armies of ten to twenty, as I witnessed in the previous Birds but not Birds, and most likely sleep in abandoned properties or other places where they are out of sight.  One sees them sometimes in the daytime, shoeless, with clothes grunge stained from their sleeping place, hair often unwashed, it is the most pitiful sight you can imagine.
     However, this empathy is often tempered with fear, because if you see a huele pega, it is most likely because they have seen you, and are now closing in for the kill.  Foreign white tourists are pretty obvious targets, and even with a different skin color, their clothes and expensive accessories would give them away.  I think personally, as one of the whitest looking people I know, I have avoided a lot of suffering by never having any sort of jewelry or accessories when I travel, not so much as a watch, and my phone I often have safely stowed away with passport next to my skin.
     There are many threats of pickpockets, scammers and other street robbers in Latin America; the prevalence of razor-wielding bag slashers was so acute, that some travelers a few years back were tramping about with their enormous 70 liter backpacks entirely enmeshed in steel webs, essentially a chain link fence around their belongings.  Personally, I just opted for camoflauge: from a farmer's supply store, I purchased a plastic 'burlap' grain bag, the kind of 50 pound sack that serves as a ubiquitous parcel on all the public buses in Latin America.  Often I would just toss my bag inside of this, so though it clearly was connected to me, once it was stowed on the rack above my head, it rarely attracted more than a moments glance by professional thieves, who would often conclude I was on a day trip or had stowed the bag on the roof instead.
     From the same farmers-type hardware store, I had also purchased a fine, 26 inch long machete.  I wasn't really clear on my reasons for buying it at the time.  I knew I was unlikely to put it to its most likely use, cutting sugar cane- I just knew I had always wanted to own one of these, and since almost everyone in Central America had one, I felt left out of the fun.  I was even allowed to walk across land borders carrying this modern sword, and no guards even looked twice at it!  That's how universal and widespread these 'agricultural tools' were then.  The blades come without an edge on them, usually you'd just pay a few cents more to have them sharpen it for you on a rotating stone at the back of the store, or sometimes an indy sharpener guy would be stationed out in front of the store on the sidewalk.
     Whatever the case was, I made a conscious decision to leave it without an edge.  I really did not want to hack someone's arm off at the shoulder, the mere idea of which was repugnant, but which often occupied the back page column of the local news after a particularly rowdy night at the pulque or aguardiente bars.  Yes, machete attacks were a regular occurrence here, and I never wanted to be part of one.  I decided that this machete was going to be a deterrent and a psychological tool- what's more, if I actually had to draw it, then I could lay about someone without actually drawing blood- they might piss their pants from the fear of losing an arm or something, but would come away with nothing but a bruise at worst. If I were challenged to a fight with another machete wielder, gods forbid, I planned to throw it down at the guys feet and point out that it had no edge and rely on future public opinion of him as a coward to save my arm from being hacked off.
This deadly weapon is  mostly viewed as just another tool like
 a rake, and only costs about 6 dollars in a local hardware store.
     So it was, that about that time, I was also making myself a custom backpack.   I had found some amazing bags that were woven of agave, one of the strongest of natural fibers, in beautiful colored patterns, that would form the bottom of the bag (since the bottom seems to be what rips out first from the effects of gravity.)  The top would be made of ordinary canvas, with a big zipper access.  As for the backbone, because this would be an internal frame, I would use the long machete, and have it bolted in so that its rigidity gave the bag the ability to stand up instead of mushrooming out like a bean bag.  While I was not carrying about this immense behemoth (overall, I think it was almost 100 liters in capacity, and often weighed 35 kilos or more), I would take out the machete and stick it in my day bag, where the handle popped helpfully out of the top, and if I needed it, I just needed to reach over my shoulder and grab it. I needed no sheath because of the lack of an edge I mentioned above.
     So about three months after the first time I had witnessed the horrifying speed and fury of a mob of huelepegas stealing from someone, the multitude of hands whirling in and out of pockets, I began to form the idea that the machete would be central to my escape plan, if I were set upon by a similar mob.  One must immediately get into a small enclosure if the storm of small hands overtakes you, and then hopefully you can deal with a smaller number of hands stealing from your pockets; obviously it would be wise to have only one pocket well protected in this case, however impractical that is.  My thinking was that I could use this machete and some good acting, to clear the way enough for me to achieve the safety of a smaller enclosure.
     So about three months later, I was on a date with another traveller I had met, a lovely girl from Canada, and we had just come out of a movie theater in downtown Lima.  It was around 9 PM, hardly a witching hour, but late enough that there were no longer crowds of people about.  I remember that we walked arm in arm in the chilly night, in that pleasant slow manner that they call andando in Spanish.  The first sign of trouble was when an urchin appeared on the outside of my lady friend, a small dirty faced urchin was attempting to wrest her purse out of her hands.  Of course she was no fool, grabbed it with both hands and firmly grabbed it out of his hands, shouting at the same time.  No more than a microsecond after this, I felt another hand feeling into my front pocket, and nearly simultaneously, another in my back pocket.  Hands appeared to be groping my bag, and swiveling my head, I soon realized we were surrounded by what seemed to be about one or two dozen of these little guys.
     Completely by blind instinct, without any conscious thoughts beforehand, I reached back for the handle, whipped out the machete, and to my own surprise as well, began screaming and shouting complete gibberish, almost like speaking in tongues.  I must have seemed like a crazy man run amok, and even my date was suddenly cowed and afraid, as the machete caught the light of the streetlamps and went shining around the square.  Like a Warner Bros. cartoon, the imps vanished in all directions, almost leaving little cloud trails behind them.  Our problem was over even faster than it had begun, and we went home, discussed it a few times and went to sleep.  Later I was much troubled by the inevitable questions: what if I had had to use it?  What if there were men with machetes instead? and many other things which I had no answers for.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Birds but not birds. (Part one)

     By the time I reached Ecuador, I had matured and ripened as a traveler and as a person.  The year in Guatemala had given me time to be introspective; to do nothing all day but gather fruits, explore markets, study Mayan hieroglyphs, and generally have the ease of a dilettante who needn't worry about sustenance, since dollar hotels and fifty cent meals abounded in the hills of the Highland Maya.
     In the Caribbean coast of Honduras, I had been given a taste of Island and Marine life, and had learned that the clear blue waters of the Caribe were good for healing any psychic misadventure one could possibly have suffered from.  In El Salvador, during the height of their Civil War, I had learned that life is most precious when it is not guaranteed (eat, drink, and be merry...)
     There,  I had been arrested, I had been threatened with loaded guns pointed directly at my chest and face, and I had once stood up to them, refusing to allow a soldier's grubby fingers to search my freshly made popcorn while on the way to a party.  None of this seemed real, or even significant, until I left and was in a normal place again.
     In Colombia, I had fallen deeply in love with a girl, someone who was as easy to love as eating a piece of pie.  She so completely and effortlessly disarmed me and dismantled all my self protection mechanisms, that before I knew it , I was in the grips of love, and panicking, since I had promised myself that no such fate would befall me, ending my days of travel prematurely and turning me into a married zombie.  I had promised myself to keep going south until I saw penguins, and then from that point I would look into further travel, or the possibility of sticking in one place a little longer.
     I suppose in part, I was a refugee of this old devil, love, in this very different, and very native-dominated country.  Ecuador was full of Incan tribes and different languages like Quechua, which was very different from Colombia, which had European, African, and a small portion of Asians and Middle Eastern peoples, who had mingled with the original peoples, the remnants of which had mostly been pushed up into the hills and hinterlands of the country.  Here in Ecuador, there was no such push evident; since most people I met were Native American at least in appearance if not actually in culture as well (much more difficult to accurately gauge in South America).
     Here in the capital city, one could see more clearly the ties with Spain and the Colonial past, even in the rare European looking faces of the capitalinos, and in the long, narrow avenues of the cold, grey metropolis.  It was in this capital that I got my first taste of the huelepegas, gangs of homeless street urchins who are all united by their addiction to smelling glue, or more specifically xylene, the active ingredient in 'airplane' glue.  
     I was coming back to my pension a bit late, perhaps midnight, and perhaps a bit light headed with grog, when I saw across the darkened plaza what appeared to be a cloud of birds, perhaps pigeons, forming a ball of activity with their beating wings and even cries.  As my eyes began to focus better, and my brain engage, the cloud seemed to lift and fly away, and I realized that at the core of this imagined pigeon mass was a middle aged man in a suit, apparently drunken and dazed, sitting on the curb.  The 'pigeons' were urchins, moving very fast, stealing the man blind and then stealing from each other, so quickly that I was as clueless as the drunken man that had been picked clean, until I realized that it must have been theft, why else would all this fluttering and sputtering and even mistaken bird cries be so self-evident and then the next minute so totally wrong?
     By the time I had realized all this, they were gone.  I was physically afraid of going across the plaza to help the poor old man, simply because that thieving cloud was probably still around, and looking for the next target of opportunity.  I was later to experience the cloud firsthand in Lima.....

Friday, March 13, 2015

Yes, ANOTHER Robin Williams Story (cheerful)

YET ANOTHER Robin Williams story-
the Good Morning Vietnam
guy for those of you who are too young...
     Yes, it's another Robin Williams profile piece.  But I would like you to note I waited long enough after his tragic demise, until all the puff/questioning pieces had died down in the media.  And, yes, I did meet the great man, sometime around the time this poster picture was made.  Because this story is yet another part of the "Swimming to Cambodia" type saga from another viewpoint.
     Actually, this story, in true STC style, begins actually at an art school in California known as CALARTS.  It's a huge, nearly Pentagon-type structure in the Orange groves about 100 km north of Los Angeles, and is considered to be "the Harvard of Art Schools", though anyone who truly knows Harvard would question its use as a metric. (U of Chicago snobbery, perhaps).
     I had two filmmaking friends from my San Francisco days, one of whom, E, we'll call him, who was my personal instigator.  He had traveled in India and SE Asia in the seventies or eighties, and had made it his personal mission to get me on 'the hippy trail' , as he called it.  San Francisco of the mid eighties, where we met, was sort of a hippy museum; one could detect traces of hippies past, but there was no real juice or life left in the place, the same place that Keroac had described in such glowing tones (though I now understand that it could very well have happened for the Beats in just about any other town).
     E and Z (the other friend) were hosting my last night in the US, before the grand hippy tour I had planned out with E's assistance, and some cash I had scraped together from the summer of salmon canning in the panhandle of Alaska (another story in itself).  I was supposed to fly out the next night out of LAX, and when I left San Fran for the last time, my trusted VW mechanic and friend, Eric, had slipped a film cannister of dope into my pocket as a going away present.  Now, I wasn't such a big dope lover at the time (still aren't), it was more of one of those gifts you get which are magically easy and convenient to regift.
     So I thought I'd better get rid of the film cannister, didn't want my own Midnight Express happening in Los Angeles airport, so I dumped the contents into a Betty Crocker carrot cake mix.  To be honest, I don't even remember what brand it was, I just thought it sounds a lot more ironic if it were a Betty Crocker mix.  Now in my scant experience cooking with weed, I've found that it blends down ok into chocolate chip cookies, as long as butter is used to soak in the THC and the green bits discarded.  But with carrot, and possibly other 'orange' veggies, when you mix in the weed the resulting mixture tastes a lot like pumpkin bread.
     So that night we had a big party, the pumpkin bread was fresh and sitting out, we had warned everyone of its magic properties, and everyone was steering clear of it.  I ate the inaugural piece to hopefully encourage others, and managed to get about as much attention as a minnow jumping out of an abandoned pond.  So I ate a second, and third, and ....oh crap, there's just one piece left, and it DOES taste good, especially now that it's starting to kick in.
Karen Finley on stage two years later.
     How is this story ever going to link to Robin Williams?  Hmmm, it's fairly improbable, at this point.  So, in case you've never eaten it, weed takes a long time to show effects, and you may not even be aware of it, so gradual and hauntingly smooth is the effect.  I may or may not have been 'high' at the time my friends announced it was time to curtail the party and go see the big show that everyone had been talking about, that I simply HAVE to see while I have the chance :  Karen Finley , live, performing for the arts community at the school auditorium.  The way they spoke in reverent whispers made her out to be a kind of rising star in the art world, though if you know anything about performance artists, you'll know that using the word 'star' is a bit of a stretch.
     Anyways, at this point, the pumpkin bread is starting to make me a happy seven year old child, and this sounds like a good idea to me.  The plan is, to take me and all my luggage to the show, because after, they'll drive me to LAX and directly put me on my flight.  "See, perfect timing!, they say to the 7 year old, who nods his head slowly....
     What can I say about Karen's show?  Really, it was probably not so shocking by today's standards, and if I had been in my right mind, it may not have been as shocking.  After all, I was no longer a virgin, and no stranger to women's bodies by that point.  But still, I found it incredibly 'culture shocking' (to my OWN culture) to hear her go into this harangue, in the persona of a male Texan in full southern accent, about how her ass reminded him of a can of candied yams.  "I shore would like to get me some yams, uh-uh" and so on, and while she carried on this one-sided sexual harassment against herself, all the while opening a can of candied yams.  After a few minutes of this, and holding the can of yams in front of her, she hiked up her skirt and started jamming the contents furiously up her womanhood, in plain view of the audience.  The effect was A. to put us off vagina  B. to put us off Candied Yams and C. to put us off our screwed up ways of thinking.  At any rate, that's the effect it had on me, and as we drove to LAX, I kept getting flashbacks over and over.
     Where is Robin Williams?  If you really have lost patience with me, I promise he's coming. But not yet.  The weird thing about the pre-9-11 era is that people assume airport regulations were tighter than the age of hijacking (a period of about seven years) of the seventies, but they really have no idea of how many irregularities.  How else can I explain that I'm by this point, so high I can barely stand up, so my friends were able to take me all the way to the gate (also allowed) supporting me between them.  I can't even imagine how many people would try to stop us, for how many different reasons, today.  All I know now is that I found my seat, or had it found for me, and then collapsed after sitting down.
    "This is your Pilot speaking.  We are now making our final approach to Bangkok International Airport, where the local temperature is 95 degrees Fahrenheit....."
     It was winter of 1987.  I was in Bangkok, with a wad of travelers checks, a rudimentary backpack with camping gear, and was wearing a turtleneck polypropylene shirt, perfect for California winter weather, and I had two important pieces of information about Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular:  Bus number 57, and Khao San Road.
     The former was the 5 cents bus from the airport, to the latter location, which is now a mecca and hub for travelers, though now the description includes surfers, divers, beach bums, tattoo punters, sex tourists, freaks, heroin junkies, Israelis just after military service, and now increasingly Korean tourists.  In other words, the kind of place that Keroac would have described in loving tones.  Of course this was 1987, so the same sorts were all there (except the last two), but they all sort of looked the same, like a nondescript traveler with a backpack (short hair hippies, I like to think of it).
     The first thing I noticed is that my polypropylene turtleneck shirt, being dark blue, was soaking up the sun like a solar panel, only instead of outputting electricity, it was outputting rivulets of sweat under my arms.  I was on bus 57, and the strange foreigner was attracting a lot of side glances and otherwise polite attention.  Everyone was smiling, but no one except me was in serious sweat distress. The bus had no aircon, just a rattling old cage of metal and rubber hurtling down a road that looked like all others.  I could be totally on the wrong bus, but these people's reassuring smiles were telling me otherwise, that they had seen shorthaired hippies on their way to Khao San.  After about an hour I started getting antsy and anxious, but looking around me I could tell that they were going to make it all right.  I waited a few more minutes, sweating, until a man tapped me on the shoulder, saying something in Thai, I motioned to the door, and he nodded.  It was like the Jumpmaster in a plane telling me it was time to make my way to the open door and do my skydive.
     Outside the bus, the world looked for a few moments what it must be to some autistic children, who are so sensitive to input that all the world comes rushing in their heads, unfiltered, causing them considerable pain.  95 degrees in the shade, of which I could find none, my shirt screaming at me to rip it off, I looked around at traffic surrounded by black clouds of diesel smoke, people hurrying hither and thither, scanning for street signs (for I understood that Khao San was the name of a street), I discovered that  there were signs in English, only they were five meters off the ground and printed in what appeared to be a font size reserved for the small print in unfavorable contracts.
     I ripped my shirt off, my body screamed relief, though that was soon quelled by all the skin cells that were soon to die from solar radiation.  More urgently, I now discovered that a lot of people around me appeared to be smiling to the point of a fabulously funny joke.  I was that joke, apparently, though I didn't realize that smiling (especially back then) was a dangerous sign that you have trespassed on the cultural norm, a sign of embarrassment (or more properly, of cringe), and my shirt soon went right back on.  I would find this magical street called 'khao san', I would get a hostel , and relieve myself of this horrible wardrobe mistake.
     I stopped a few friendly looking sorts (they all looked friendly, just some less busy than others) and repeated, in that stupid-tourist-louder-than-life stage voice (they aren't deaf, they just don't understand your babbling, silly) "Khao San?  Where?  Khao San?".  After one or two of these encounters, I got someone pointing down a nondescript street, where to my shock, I saw English signs along both sides.  "Hello cafe"  , and the "Good Morning Cafe" and the "Happy Cafe", all of which were advertising 'European breakfasts"
     After stopping another friendly hippy (short hair), I got a recommendation for a place behind the temple, a place called Apple Two.  I sauntered into the back alley behind another alley behind the buddhist temple, and saw the sign pop out from a row of non-descript (except they are possible to describe, being a typical working class thai urban house, but I don't have room) houses in this tiny, dark alley.  It was actually a cheerful place, tiny little box rooms, but clean, and a big space in the middle with couches and chairs where all the hippies were hanging out.  I soon made the best of friends, and rum and coke appeared, and we were all chatting and stuff, and before I know it, they are all saying that I HAVE to go and see this show, that it's the ultimate, that I'll hate myself if I don't.  So we all scramble our stuff together, boys and girls and fill up two taxis, who take us to this neighborhood downtown, someone is in charge, not sure who but he seems to know the ropes.  Next thing I know we are going in a nightclub, there's a doorman, I hear him clearly say "Fuck you" and give us all the biggest, politest smile, and I know we are in for an experience.
     I then watch the infamous ping pong show, only for me it's not the ping pong show, I'm flashing back to Karen and all of the inappropriate yam jamming, as balls and darts and all kinds of even more inappropriate things are going in and out of orifices, and before I know it my head starts to spin in that backwards way, a special kind of headache that only extreme double reverse culture shock can bring you.  And so it was, that I saw the ping pong show on both sides of the Pacific, in a way, within twenty four hours of each other, though interpreted through different filter.
     The next morning, I slept in, trying to forget all the cultural compression and decompression of the previous week, and was just hanging around the open living room of the hostel, and the phone rang.  No one picked it up right away, for the family was away, and the rule there was that the guests could answer it, and try to take a message for another guest, or give out information, or whatever, since it was usually another traveler on the end of the line.  I was closest in the living room, so I picked it up and spoke gingerly to the unknown caller: "Hello?"
     "Good Morning! sang a distinctly American, somewhat impatient female voice on the other end.  "Is John X there?"   "John!"  I shouted to the two or three people in the living room, for it was emptier than I had realized.  Blank stares came back at me, perhaps the people were trying to figure out which language I was blathering in.
     "I'm sorry" I apologized to this stranger. "I think he's out.  Can I take a message?"  Then the stranger spoke four words that were to change my destiny, at least temporarily.  "How tall are you?"she intoned rather seriously.  This was not a joke.  I was going to take John's job, whatever that is.  "About 5-11" I said, hoping it wasn't a casting call for a basketball team or something.  "What color are your hair and eyes?", she asked, perhaps afraid she was talking to an Asian person.  What I was to learn later is that Hollywood is at the very epicenter of racism and all kinds of bigotry, which is perpetuated through the typecasting of villains, good guys, and especially extras, now known in doublespeak as 'background actors'.
     I told her basically what she wanted to hear, that I was caucasian (though it turns out they were also casting blacks), and she gave me a set of job descriptions and directions to follow to get myself into this movie thing they were shooting down in Phuket.  The pay was forty dollars a day, a fortune in 1987 Thailand , since this hostel itself was actually 2 dollars a night.  The bus fare was paid already, I would sleep in paid accommodation there (it turned out to be very similar to Apple 2, actually).  So when I realized I could stay an entire month in Apple two from just three days work, I needed no more convincing.  I was in.  I left that night.
     I arrived late night at Phuket, stayed in the hostel, and the next morning they came and drove all us extras to the set.  It was really early so this part is a bit fuzzy, still groggy with sleep they were shoving rifles and army uniforms at us , we got into the togs and grabbed the guns and jumped on these big transport trucks, and started winding up this jungle hill in the middle of seemingly nowhere- though probably that site is now all condos as far as you can see.
     It occurred to me, looking around at all the fresh faces, still half asleep, all the other young white and black American looking G.I. types, that this experience might not be much different from actually being drafted.  I mean, we were all here on this 'adventure', and what not, but who's to say, that if another army with a different uniform were to appear on the crest of the hill and start shooting at us, like real bullets, with people getting hit left and right, that you might not fire back, in fact who's to say you couldn't get into a real 'fake' war this way; by the time the extras had figured out they'd been tricked, it'd be far too late, you'd have to fight if you wanted to see the light of the next day.  So in a way I was sort of dreaming Tropic Thunder (minus the Simple Jack part, of course, I wasn't going full retard)- but I can't have been the only fake soldier to have done so.
     In fact, it prompted me to more carefully examine my helmet, which seemed unusually heavy to me. I had in fact just come from India where I had lost 45 pounds and nearly my life, leaving me a skinny little runt to the point where I thought it was my skinny little neck having a hard time holding up the scant weight of a fake plastic helmet.  But this thing in my hands was a big, old chunk of metal.  I looked inside and found markings.  THIS WAS A REAL HELMET FROM 'NAM.  Holy shit, the whole Tropic Thunder thing seemed to reverberate when it sunk in that I was WEARING A FUCKING HELMET THAT MAYBE SOMEBODY DIED IN.
    I looked at the gun they had given me.  I remember that as soon as the guns were handed round, a whole bunch of the meathead extras (I heard that they had combed the beaches of Phuket, and had rounded up an annual gathering of Canadian firefighters) started immediately pointing the guns at imaginary targets, in some cases each other, and going 'click' with the trigger, while childishly mouthing the sound 'pow'.  At the time, I had thought nothing of it, since I assumed that any Hollywood production would just use made-for-stage rifles, or else 'formerly' real ones with muzzle and breach blocks to prevent any real ammo from going in or out of the machine.
     Not stupid enough to actually look down the barrel of my own gun, I contented myself with the knowledge that this was a safe gun, no problems with accidental live rounds or what not, and the fact of the real helmet just sat in the back of my head, nagging me while I quietly put the other thoughts away.
I'm pretty sure it was one of these earlier models, not the M16s
you normally see in closeups of "Full Metal Jacket" etc.
     I think it was on the second take going up that hill, a big take, since it involved about five troop transports , a couple of jeeps and a helicopter or two all kind of synching together, before long, we had stopped halfway through the take.  I looked over at the helicopter, since that would be the most logical snafu that would require rewinding the scene.  it was in the same place it had been on the first take.  Not long after I had these thoughts, a jeep pulls up, only this time, instead of extras in costume, it had an ashen faced props manager, in civ clothes.  "Hand down your rifles" he barked, almost as if he was in character for a Sergeant.  We dutifully handed them down, and he immediately jerked open the bolt and peered into the chamber with one eye cocked, then handed them back one by one.
     "What's this all about? " I stammered, suddenly not caring if I lost my precious forty dollar job, since my life had to be worth at least twice that.  He reached into the floor of the jeep and brought up a big army ammo can, which he shook vigourously, so that we could hear the four or five shells inside of it.  "I found these inside the other guns" he said, and we all turned the same color as he was, thinking about those Canook beefheads and their idiotic antics with point and shoot.  One of us could have been killed on the set that day.
     The third day was a bit dolorous, not just because we had escaped death by bullet, death by repeated takes over and over of the truck scene (which got cut down to a 1.5 second establishing shot; my truck got completely cut out of that), not just because we had been eating bland Wonderbread fucking mayonnaise and some mystery lunch-meat sandwiches on set the whole time (Seriously? That's the only food you could rustle up in fucking Thailand?),not just because the day was a bit overcast and gloomy, but because most of us were at the end of the extra shoot and would be losing our sweet forty dollar gig.
     Some of the extras had wormed their way into 'permanent' temporary positions, like driving a jeep, looking extra 'soldiery', etc.  I had to laugh at this one guy, who had apparently grown up with WW2 movies, cause he was a living breathing stereotype of the fake heroism macho bullshit of that era, a cigarette butt dangling at an angle out of his chompers, the sleeves rolled up with a cig pack in it, helmet askew with chinstrap dangling down as if he didn't give a good goddamn.  I halfway expected John Wayne himself to come up and congratulate this man for giving his soul to the devil of Hollywood.  Yeah, I'll admit it, we all hated him cause he had made big bucks by having got there early; he was now in his third month of filming.
     So it was with no small surprise that, when they called a few of us (meaning less than 20 out of the 100 something that we were) out to the 'set' and had us sit around on stumps around this campfire pit (not lit of course, cause temps were still in the high 30's) and make like we were R and Ring or whatever it is that soldiers are supposed to do in  Nam in their free time (minus the 'me love you long time' part).  No small surprise when Robin Williams rolls up to the center of our little gathering and starts doing an impromptu stand-up set.
     "This is the Reverend Squirrely Bush!" he boomed in his fake Radio Evangelist voice, with no mike in sight, in uniform.  I was taken completely by surprise, not even realizing that the cameras were rolling now, for they had sort of wanted to get us reacting like humans would.  Maybe I had been given this honor because of all the extras there, I was having the hardest time, still suffering from Dehli Belly in the worst way, and having to often dash off to the loo in between takes.  In fact, their advisor, a black vet, had patted me on the shoulders and said, "Great!  You're the most authentic of all!  We were always shittin' our brains out back then"
     I had missed seeing Robin live not four months earlier, back in a little comedy club called The Other in San Francisco, where he was quite famous for popping in unannounced and jumping on stage to do an impromptu act, often in tandem with who ever happened to be up there.  Just a couple of weeks earlier I had missed one of these legendary moments when Dana Carvey was up there, Robin shows up, jumps up and they started doing some sort of comedy duel to the death.  I knew a waitress there and after she told me that story, she slipped me in the back door so I could  watch Dana myself (though with no Robin).  Now here he was , standing up directly in front of me a few meters away!
     Dudes were cracking up all around me, but I was so shocked I literally couldn't pick up my jaw from the ground where it had lain all this time.  I still see some of those 'professional laughers' cause one or two of them made the final cut - the irony is that in the movie, they are listening to Robin on the radio, when they were actually just a farting distance from the real dude.
    The shoot finally wrapped up, I got over my shock, and we all began walking to the lunch tents, where as I already knew, extras go to one tent and eat fucking Wonderbread, and every one else goes to another tent and ate, I don't know, chicken or something.  I wouldn't be able to schmooze with the big man once we split to our tents, so I started walking alongside him, there were actually just two gawkers already there, they were even more awed than I.  He was continuing to tell jokes!  In fact, for him the cameras had not stopped rolling!  What I mean is, in a nice way, he needed an audience- and for now he needed us, desperately , to laugh at him.  He was seeking our approval.  I thought back to all the funny amazing comics I've known in my life and not one of them was not without a dark tragic side.  They had all filled that void with humor, and here was the biggest black hole of them all, a dark genius.  That truly filled me with more awe than anything, than being shot out with fake guns which turned out to be real, than all the rest of it.
     We were nearly at the tents.  I've always been a timid sort, so much so that nearly all my girfriends have made the first move, so much so that I voted against myself as fourth grade class president.  So I don't know what prompted me to be the first extra that dared do anything besides laugh at the great man.  I said "So, do you still go to the Other sometimes?"   He looked at me in shock, as if I had punched him and knocked the wind out of him.  "You've been to the Other?" he said, in disbelief, suddenly being transported to home, to the thousands of people in the Bay who loved and supported him even before his television career.  "Yeah, I saw Dana Carvey, but I was kinda bummed that it wasn't the night you showed up" I said.   After that it was a little awkward, cause I could tell he had granted me special status as a fellow SF person, not just a normal fan or extra, but now it was time to go to our special tents, perhaps he would shake hands in the other tent and then do his trailer to be alone, who knows?  Of course we also saw him later with this gorgeous woman in her late twenties, the rumor spread that it was his affair of the moment.....
     Sorry to make you wait so long for the Robin Williams part, it was a bit devious of me, but it just seemed wrong to cut out parts of the experience which were really integral to it.  Years later I was to return to the 'Vietnam set' in Phuket as an extra, with the great Werner Herzog, who was even more charming, humble and personable than I could have imagined.