A very short story
April 3, 2003
The morning sun had just cleared the jagged black peaks of the Musandam peninsula
when Abdullah took in a deep breath and pointed to a convoy of oil tankers below,
still shrouded in the morning fog, with their runner lights still on. "Carlton,"
he said, "chances are that the oil in your furnace back home this winter will
be in one of the dozens of these ships that pass through here each day." His
right index finger attached to the end of a stretched-out arm, moved slowly like
a giant dial, from left to right, sweeping across the Strait of Hormuz below. This
is a body of water that connects the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. It has served
as the jugular vein of the industrial world, feeding it with the substance of modern
life, oil. Some sixty percent of the world's seaborne petroleum goes through here.
Americans are not very keen on world geography, maybe because we are pretty much
a world onto ourselves -- until something traumatic happens to our interests or people
overseas. Then we go and look up the place, read about it, and become instant experts
on the place and its people, sometimes more of an expert than the natives themselves.
Mrs. Jackson, my fifth grade teacher at Abraham-Theodorus Public School, in Simsbury,
Kansas, was a good example of this education-by-crisis method.
The way that Mrs. Jackson told it, she had been a survivor of the '73 Oil Crisis,
when a bunch of Arab oil exporting countries decided to punish America's friendly
policy toward Israel by not sending us oil. So Mrs. Jackson, then Penny Standish,
a twenty-something student at Kansas State, had to put on an extra sweater, turn
down the thermostat, drive less and slower, and cut down on the number of light bulbs
that lit up her two bedroom townhouse like a shrine to the local power company. The
crisis was also a time for opportunities: Her Uncle Bill was able to insulate his
whole house and get a tax break from the government; then he turned to selling insulation
and wrapping people's water-heaters. Under another Federal program, her other uncles,
Bob, left Newton and went drilling for oil and gas in Oklahoma. In the Winter of
1972-73 then was when Mrs. Jackson had learned about the Strait of Hormuz.
According to Mrs. Jackson, as she taught us, Strait of Hormuz was more important
than the other straits: So when we got to "strait talk," as she called
it, in our geography-and-exploration unit, we skipped the straits of Magellan and
Malaca. This created a sort of a stir in the community. The parents at the Tuesday
evening's curriculum night wanted to know if Mrs. Jackson was out of her cotton-picking
mind to stress the importance of a strait that nobody had heard about. Given the
vitriol, one would think Mrs. Jackson had bucked up against Creationism or something.
By the time the school committee could do anything about it, the class had moved
to another unit, electricity.
Mrs. Jackson's strait talk also made it into our familyís dinner hours. My great
uncle, Mike, was infuriated over Hormnuz-gate. He had fought in World War 2, Pacific
Theater, as he used to announce at every Thanksgiving dinner. By his own count, which
varied from year to year, he had passed through the Strait of Malaca some fifteen
times, ferrying life-saving and essential cargo past Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula.
Very few around the turkey table would openly disagree with Uncle Mike, on this or
any other issue; I always agreed with him: it was the most efficient way to be excused
from the table after three hours of butt-numbing ordeal.
Getting caught in the web of Uncle Mikeís captivating talk at Thanksgiving meant
missing out on a lot of the other stuff. For one thing, there was the ball game.
When Cousin Jeff would shut off the sound during commercials, we could hear the juicy
details of Cousin Susan's melodramatic life, which the ladies dissected nearby with
their soft whispers. Then there was Cousin Ferdinand, who never learned to develop
an exit strategy when cornered by Uncle Mike. Every Thanksgiving, Ferdinand would
fall into Uncle Mike's conversation trap and he did again at the height of Hormuz-gate.
He decided to challenge Uncle Mike by declaring that, in his opinion, the Strait
of Magellan was the most important strait in the history of mankind. Well, that sent
Uncle Mike through the roof, and somehow Ferdinand miraculously managed an escape
from the table with just a turkey's neck stuck in his ear.
Truth be told, as reported by my Aunt Sally, Uncle Mike's bias toward Malaca was
psychotic. The strait, as she explained one night, connected Uncle Mike, in his idle
years, to a time that he was young and purposeful, to a saga that caused him to suffer
a great pain from a couple of superficial wounds. All this had developed in him an
over-inflated moral authority which he lorded over the rest of the family, especially
over my poor dad, who had the courage of his conviction to sit out the Vietnam War.
The only one in my family who could speak with any authority about the Strait
of Hormuz was John Hermish, the one-time estranged husband of Cousin Susan. Some
said that his constant volunteering for tours of duty to the Persian Gulf did-in
their marriage. John believed that he was called upon by God to protect the blood-line
of the greatest Christian nation on earth. No sacrifice was too great to that end:
He quit his job at the local meat packing establishment, left Susan and their two-month-old
daughter, and began his odyssey as a deck-hand on board the Panama, an oil-tanker,
owned by the Kuwaitis but registered in Liberia; it used to transport oil from the
Persian Gulf country of Kuwait to South Africa.
joining the crew of the Panama in the early 1980s coincided with the time that Iraq,
an Arab country, and Iran, not an Arab country but with a small Arab population,
were fighting each other. Kuwait, another Arab country, was on the side of Iraq.
The Iranians, thinking that the money from the Kuwaiti oil was helping the Iraqis,
decided to attack the Panama. John lost his right middle finger, reportedly as the
price for waving obscenities, as was his manner. Nobody knew for sure. Five months
later, when President Reagan ordered American naval protection for the Kuwaiti tankers,
John somehow ended up as an ensign on one of the destroyers that were sent to patrol
the waters near the Strait of Hormuz. That tour of duty was followed by another one
in Bahrain, an archipelago in the southwestern corner of the Persian Gulf, home to
America's Seventh Fleet. At the time of Desert Storm, in 1991, John ended up as gunner
on a destroyer that rained missiles on Iraq during Desert Storm, the war in which
America and her allies pushed out the Iraqis out of Kuwait.
Funny, John and Uncle Mike never argued about the straits. Had they, it would
have been like fireworks. Maybe what had kept the peace between them was deterrence,
the knowledge that either could inflict an equal and unacceptable degree of indignity
on the other. Had they argued, my money would have been on Uncle Mike.
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