Philadelphia – More than Rocky and Cheesesteaks

Terminal leave continues to march along. On Friday I will officially have my last day on active duty – that sure arrived quickly. After that I return to a drilling status and, eventually, a paying job. I’d like a bit more time before that starts. For decompression, you know.

What that means is we’ve done some family travel to places accessible from the National Capitol Region, including the fair city of Philadelphia. For purposes of this blog, Philly is most notable for being home to USS Olympia, commissioned in 1895 as the sixth steel cruiser in the U.S. Navy. I visited several years ago and attempted to take the tour, but was denied due to air conditioning issues on a very hot day. This week, the weather was temperate and I was permitted to embark, which was basically like Christmas in September for this very eager SWO.

Some pictures and thoughts follow.

First, here’s a view of the ship from the river side, so you know what we’re talking about (courtesy of Wikipedia):USS_Olympia_2

In this picture, the bow is to the left and the stern on the right – the design is such that a novice might not be able to tell. Olympia is 344 feet long and displaces 5,870 tons, putting the 1890s cruiser about 200 feet shorter and 4,000 tons lighter than today’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers. Built in San Francisco, Olympia led the U.S. squadron at the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay, in which the Spanish fleet in the Philippines was sunk and Spanish influence in the Pacific essentially ended. You may agree there is at least a trifle of historic value in this vessel. (Bonus historic points: The battle gave us the namesakes of two current Navy destroyers, USS Dewey and USS Gridley)

When boarding this steel ship, the first thing to strike a visitor is, “Wow, that’s a lot of wood.” Welcome to Officers’ Country (though I’m not sure if that’s what they called it at the time). The very wide corridor aft of the wardroom is lined with officers’ staterooms.



Forward of the staterooms is the wardroom, placed roughly amidships on what today we would call the main or first deck. Warships of the time were lined with medium-caliber weapons, and even the wardroom, where officers dined and entertained, played its part:



But apparently even in the 1890s ensigns could be a rowdy lot, so if their seniors decided to banish them to the kids’ table, they had a place for that, too:


In comparison, here is enlisted berthing:


One of many random curiosities along the way is a brief narrative of what they did before Oscar came along:


Moving on, the coal-fired steam plant is not on exhibit, but you can at least glance down into it and admire the ability of Olympia’s firemen to conduct wipers. Wow, that plant is clean (it helps to be a museum).


Something we thankfully haven’t dealt with since the transition to oil is disposal of solid combustion byproducts: ash (now we just dump it all directly into the atmosphere – much easier). So at several locations throughout the ship are ash hoists, available for pulling ash out of the burners and keeping the boilers clean.


What then? Don’t show this to your Environmental Readiness Officer…

Would this count as oily discharge?

Would this count as oily discharge?

The tour then leads to the superstructure and gun deck, on what today we’d call the 01-level. Here’s the breech of a five-inch gun:


The gun deck was also a crew living space. So they could sleep securely.

This is the admiral’s cabin, which, all in all, looks pretty nice. Just to the right of the frame, with a couple components visible, is his own five-inch gun. I’m sure the carpet was there to prevent dings in the deck when it ejected spent powder cartridges.


Pretty sure the flatscreen TV is not an artifact of the period

Near the admiral’s and captain’s cabins was a Marine stateroom, in which this helmet was visible. Did people actually wear these outside of the Reich? This helmet might be the only thing in the tour I had truly never seen nor heard of before.


Of course, eventually you can get yourself topside, where my native Northern California self could find some pride.


Tourists cannot step onto the bow or get very near the eight-inch guns, but this is a good view of how the forecastle and turret are set up. A five-inch gun is visible at bottom.


That view was from the starboard bridge wing, but it was near the starboard engine order telegraph where history was made:



So, yeah, go see these guys:


No 121-year-old steel warship will continue to float in saltwater indefinitely. Visit before it rusts out!




Broadcast Notes

He's cute and cuddly and sucks you in...

He’s cute and cuddly and sucks you in…

As my time in the island Kingdom winds down – I have precisely one month to go – I wanted to record some of the unusual things I’ve seen on TV. Not that I watch a lot of local TV, but when I go to the gym I usually turn it on to pass the time. In any case, I’ve been able to make a few observations, placed in no particular order below.

First, I should say that in Bahrain there are some local channels, but all the English-language Arab channels I’ve been able to identify are out of Saudi Arabia, which is right next door (we also get the BBC and CNN International). So when I talk about Arab TV, really I mean Saudi.

  • It would appear Turkey has a bustling export market in soap operas. Turkish TV is subtitled, but they’re Arabic subtitles, so, aside from reading right to left, I’m lost anyway. What I have learned from them is that everything worth doing in Turkey happens within view of the Bosporus.
  • Back in the spring, one channel had a Star Wars-themed promotion for… something, I know not what. It was spectacularly unlicensed. The stormtroopers and Darth Vader looked pretty good (those are common costumes, after all) but Chewbacca was an absolute travesty of a man in a bear suit. A certain degree of sloppiness must have been required to avoid a lawsuit. The desert scenery, though, was quite convincing.
  • I can identify certain Arab actors across different commercials now.
  • At some point while channel surfing I found Hugh Laurie playing second fiddle to a talking rat in “Stuart Little 2”, which I suppose I could have seen in the States except there is no freaking way I would have ever seen this film if I hadn’t been in a Bahraini gym watching Arab TV showing lower-tier American movies (Dude, was that kid the “Jerry Maguire” kid? Yes, yes he was.).
  • According to the programming announcement, following “Stuart Little 2” were “Cool Runnings” and “The Big Chill”. Their catalogue is deep.
  • Camel racing really is a thing.
  • Saudi TV shows a lot of stuff that would be highly illegal on a Saudi street. Like women’s faces.
  • They censor the visuals but none of the audio. If you’re learning English you can learn to swear pretty well from Saudi TV.
  • Surprisingly they showed the carrot scene in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” but cut basically the entire rest of the movie.
  • I finally saw the end of “Antwone Fisher”! I mean, I kinda knew how it ends, but still…

Whereupon It’s Ramadan


The local establishment

Ramadan has begun. Back in the States people are mostly just familiar with it as a period
that seems to come at a different time each year, about which foreign policymakers are skittish. As a dilettantish non-Muslim foreigner in a country populated by Shi’a but run by Sunni, I know only marginally more than that myself… but I do know at least a little bit. So here are some words on the Salty Wog’s take on Ramadan.

You may not know the Islamic calendar is similar to the Jewish calendar in that it is lunar-based. That’s why Ramadan keeps moving up a few days each year on the Gregorian calendar. The holy period commences with the first sighting of the crescent moon after the new moon. In the weeks leading up to it, we knew Ramadan was beginning sometime around now but no one could say when exactly. That’s because it’s an actual sighting of the moon – yeah, we know to the second all the phases of the moon due to super-advanced techniques developed centuries ago, but someone has to actually see it. And you never know when the guy on watch will be taking a coffee break, or if a cloud will get in the way. But eventually the crescent moon will appear, and Ramadan will begin. If you can’t see it because you’re spending summer at the North Pole, just follow Mecca’s schedule.

Us secular Americans were very interested in Ramadan’s beginnings because it really changes the daily routine in the city. Muslims are confined to six-hour workdays, and business hours radically change. Many places are open first thing in the morning, but close the bulk of the day and open up again after dark. The many Muslims who work on base get alternate hours, and I would imagine (though I don’t know) they’ve had to hire some extra seasonal workers to fill in the gaps. You’ve really got to plan.

The biggest change is food and water consumption. Muslims are supposed to fast during daylight (again, those in the extreme latitudes follow Mecca). Public consumption of food and drink is forbidden in Bahrain and the other Gulf nations during this time. We can do whatever we want on base, of course, or behind closed doors, but if you’re drinking from a water bottle on the street, or so much as chewing gum, you could be cited.

It used to be the U.S. personnel had to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts out in town; that’s how I packed, anticipating Ramadan when I was planning my extended stay. However, that has been relaxed this year because, in practice, none of the locals do that. So our dress is basically unchanged, though wearing an In-N-Out t-shirt with a big picture of a double-double is probably frowned upon.

Restaurants will be open late every night. I anticipate seeing a lot of voraciously hungry customers out there.

Sensitive Westerners try making a good-faith effort to curtail their military operations during Ramadan. Not that their adversaries often care; there was a spate of attacks last year during the month, and ISIS is apparently threatening overseas attacks in the next few weeks. So much for that.

Should be an interesting month.


Djiiiiibouti, Djibouti, Oh Yeah, Djibouti Djibouti Djibouti Djibouti*

In my last post I made a two-word comment that may have made no sense if you knew not of what I spoke: “Djibouti sucks.” Djibouti is not, in fact, an exotic Middle Eastern dish, or seaborne disease. Djibouti, as it happens, is its very own country, with territory, people, a government and local traditions no one else knows about. And I don’t mean to slander a whole country.

So let’s first describe why Djibouti sucks, as best explained by this picture taken inside a porta-potty, which is where all the important philosophy happens:

Djibouti is out of this world!

Djibouti is out of this world!

Clear enough, I think.

But despite the possibility of being orbitally divergent from the rest of the Earth, Djibouti is actually really important on account of this picture, taken from the Internet, which is never wrong:

Djibouti: Center of world commerce

Djibouti: Center of world commerce

Djibouti is at dead center of this map. Perched right at the Bab-el-Mandeb, the critical chokepoint leading into the Red Sea and thence Suez and the Med, a huge proportion of global maritime traffic passes through Djiboutian waters every day.

Thus, it caught the attention of the French. Beginning in 1883 they started signing treaties with local tribes to gain a foothold in the area, and by 1896 they were running the show. French administration lasted all the way until 1977, when Djiboutians voted for independence in a referendum.

Overflying the capital, Djibouti City

Overflying the capital, Djibouti City

The French administration ended, but they left their stuff – in particular, Camp Lemonnier. The U.S. had expressed interest in leasing the old French military base prior to 9/11, but after the terror attacks and increased counterterror ops in the region, things really took off for Camp Lemonnier. It’s still not the nicest of places – in the last few years people went from living in tents to shipping containers – but there’s a big runway and all the facilities you need to run a military operation, so it’s a major hub for everything that goes on in the area. And the French Foreign Legion is there, too. Because that’s what they do.

Other people have similar ideas.  China is in the process of building a base elsewhere in Djibouti – which is not that big, by the way. So this ought to be interesting.

The rest looks like this

The rest looks like this

My personal Djibouti experience is limited to walking around the Camp Lemonnier tarmac and using the aforementioned facilities while going to and from a ship at sea – but that’s good enough to say I set foot in Africa, right?

I should add, if you’re a Navy Reservist, you stand a VERY good chance of passing through, for a few hours or possibly eternity. Makes you want to sign up, right?


*Yeah, only a couple people will understand why I chose that title but I don’t care.

My experience of Djibouti: Going there so I can go someplace else

My experience of Djibouti: Going there so I can go someplace else

Update: I went to France in May 2016 and saw stuff that seemed pertinent here.

There's that map again, circa 1930.

There’s that map again, circa 1930

Parisian street signs even tell you whey their namesakes are important. Which is nice.

Parisian street signs even tell you why their namesakes are important – which is nice


Andrew Lloyd Webber, Call Your Agent

They're watching you...

They’re watching you…

Sailors and Marines come and go. Civilians stay longer but still have homes to return to. Even local hires don’t stay forever. Only one group can legitimately claim ownership of Naval Support Activity Bahrain – the cats.

They are everywhere, and they are in charge.

Cats roam outside the gate, and inside. Meowing, faint or sometimes very loud, can be heard at all hours of the day and night. They come up to people and look for company… or food. Signs warn DO NOT FEED THE CATS. But little piles of kibble can still be found here and there. I think it’s the Marines – they’re all softies at heart.

These creatures are not devoid of personality. One had kittens a couple months ago whom I see now and then. They are skittish. Others are more assertive; two of them were involved in a very loud confrontation behind a bush when one came shooting out in front of me into the street, with the other immediately chasing at high speed.

There’s another wily one that consistently hangs out by the back exit of the Navy Exchange’s mini-grocery store. People often stop there to re-pack their groceries into backpacks or bicycle baskets. This orange cat has figured out that some of these people are nice to it, and always gives attention to those who pause there. I don’t know if it’s ever paid off with a snack, but the cat is apparently confident it will.

AND they can burn you with their eyeballs!

AND they can burn you with their eyeballs!

I did the usual blog-level cursory research to see if cats are a big deal in Bahrain, and I was surprised to find they actually are. Meet the Delmun cat – it has its own website. Very few cats can code in HTML, but Bahrain trains them well. The name, also spelled Dilmun, alludes to the civilization that flourished on the island 4,000 years ago, a contemporary and trading partner of Mesopotamia. The cats are native to the island, though through the centuries there has been some interbreeding with visiting cats gone feral. In their purebred incarnation, they are well-adapted to desert life and low water intake, while at the same time, they have webbed feet. These cats are seriously conflicted about their preferred lifestyle.

Whether the Delmun cat would rather hunt in the southern desert or swim to Saudi Arabia, it’s obvious it doesn’t require people to help. So the very needy cats on base are probably a big embarrassment to the native cats. This must contribute to some pretty cutthroat intrafeline politics here. And so in the cats we find yet another intractable Middle Eastern dispute.

I knew there was a reason I never liked “Cats.”



The Tree of Life: The Not-Movie Version


We're not talking about this.

We’re not talking about this.

Now that I am awake during the day (as opposed to my long period standing watch and generally living at night), I have the opportunity to do daytime things, like play tourist. So I found a brief tour on a day off, put down my $5 (!) and got in a van to visit the Tree of Life.

Several years ago I did see the movie “The Tree of Life,” the very Malick-y Terrence Malick film from 2011. It is a beautiful movie, though I couldn’t tell you what it’s actually about. However the attraction in Bahrain is a little different – Brad Pitt was nowhere to be found, and, for that matter, I couldn’t locate any dinosaurs, either (if you haven’t seen the movie, that sentence will make no sense).

A tree grows in Bahrain.

A tree grows in Bahrain.

Bahrain’s Tree of Life is an actual tree. It is in the neighborhood of 400 years old and all by itself in the southern desert, a generally tree-free region. But somewhere way down deep it tapped into an as-yet-unidentified water source and it has flourished over the centuries. Surrounding the tree are decaying stone-and-mortar foundations that are about the same age as the tree. Archeologists have recovered various signs of human habitation, from jugs to coins to ammunition. It would make sense for someone to have located a fort there and kept a stash of cannonballs. The site is on top of a small hill, from which you can see pretty far in all directions. People don’t tend to think too much about topography, but in a flat country a few feet can make a big difference.

Someone lived here.

Someone lived here.

But it was only in 2013 that the site was enclosed to prevent cars from driving over the ruins, so it’s not in the best shape. The five of us tourists were walking all over the area, which I’m sure would have been blocked off if we’d been in the Arizona desert.

Beyond actually seeing the Tree of Life, the trip was notable for being almost as far as you can go on the island of Bahrain. There is territory to the south of the tree, but not terribly much. So I can now say I’ve seen nearly the entire east coast, bopping along to the tunes of Smashmouth/No Doubt/Pearl Jam/Adele/Taylor Swift and other pop of the last 20 years on the radio station apparently solely sponsored by Saudi Aramco (a story in itself) for all the expats in the Gulf. It was basically like when driving through Fredericksburg, where I lose the DC stations and put on a local pop one, except that instead of I-95 in lush tidewater Virginia it was a really well-maintained freeway in dusty desert. (Did the desert dust get on you? Shake It Off.)

The drive from Juffair, my neighborhood, to the Tree is actually instructive in that it gets your eyeballs on all the major industries. As you exit the city of Manama you can see the giant skyscrapers – hubs of banking and finance scattered amongst grand hotels serving tourists and business travelers alike. Along the waterfront the ship berths, repair facilities and naval base are visible. Further south as the residential and commercial suburbs give way to heavy industry, an oil refinery and storage tanks become visible (so not only can Bahrain export crude, they can process oil into usable products, which is nice). And a bit before the city streets turn to freeway, there’s a giant aluminum smelting plant which, from the street, looks very clean and modern – aluminum is Bahrain’s second-biggest export after oil, after all. And then right down the road from the Tree of Life itself, you’ll find Isa Air Base, hub of Bahrain’s air defenses. We actually followed a convoy of security forces on the way out from the Tree. So there’s definitely a lot of military activities in the south.

There is, of course, more to say – Bahrain is a small country but it is an entire country, and that’s kind of a big deal. But that’s plenty for one post. As always, there’s more to follow.