Friday, June 29, 2007

Glad to be Alive

California or Bust

Off I-10, East of Lordsburg, NM
On the way from Tucson to the
White Sands National Monument
in New Mexoco

Sometimes things happen and we respond to what happened without thinking about what might have been.

My friend, Len Swanson (another photographer when not doing the "day job") and I had driven from Tucson to Las Crucse, New Mexico on Wednesday and spent the night at a Best Western with the intention of getting an early start on the day and catch some morning light on the White Sands Desert on Thursday morning.

It was about 6:30am and I was driving down the incline on US-70 coming out of the San Andreas Mountains between Las Cruces and Alamogordo, right about at the interchange for the White Sands Missile Test Facility, when I was confronted by a rock in the middle of my lane ... which I promptly hit at about 75 mph while trying to dodge around it. Instant flat!

I wrestled the car to the right shoulder and, once we started breathing again, I pulled the doughnut out of the tire bay in the back and jacked up the car to change the flat for the doughnut.

I've never had to change a tire on the Saburu (though I've changed my share over the years on other cars), so it was a surprise to find that there wasn't a lug wrench among the souvenirs in the back.

I did have a cell phone, so I placed a call to AAA to make use of some of the dues I've been paying for a number of years. I was promptly connected to AAA Central - which must be somewhere in Bangalore because the person on the other end of the line had a problem understanding what a New Mexico was.

"I'm on US-70 in New Mexico."

"OK, you're on I-70?"

"NO! US-70 ... between Las Cruces and Alamogordo ... right at the end of the run up ramp for the White Sands Missile Testing facility on the east bound side of US-70."

"I-70? Near what?"

"No! US-70 ... I don't think there's an I-70 in New Mexico! We're at the White Sands Missile Testing Facility administrative offices exit ... you konw ... White Sands .. .where the rocket scientists hang out?"

"HAHAHAHAHA ... Rocket scientists! That's funny!"

I held back on the editorial comment that leaped to mind.

"OK, sir, we'll get someone out to you as soon as possible. We'll call you back in about five minutes with an estimated time of their arrival."

In the meantime, unknown to me, my friend, Len, had pulled out his 400mm (huge) telephoto lens and was trying to focus on the mile marker a little way down the road so we could give it to the AAA operator.

Within two minutes of him pulling out the lens, and about 30 seconds after I hung up with AAA, my rear view mirror was filled with flashing red and blue lights as a uniformed security officer from the testing facility pulled up behind our car and got out, hand on weapon.

"Sir, you know, you can't take photographs around here."

Len explained that he wasn't taking photographs .. that he'd only taken the lens out to try to read the mile marker sign down the road so we could tell AAA where we were.

The officer bought it.

I was grateful ... because, you see, habeas corpus has been suspended in this country. An American citizen can be arrested on the suspicion of being ... well, alive ... and can be held without charges, without a phone call, without access to a lawyer or a defense .. without a trial, for that matter.

If the security officer decided to give us a hard time, we could very well have been arrested and, if we were for any reason, designated as "enemy combatants" ... my next address could well have been Gitmo. But no one would ever know.

So ... I'm glad to be alive. the car didn't flip, as it could have.

And I'm glad to be free ... because, had attitudes been a little different, that might no be the case. But the whole thing made me wonder if there's any longer any value in being an American citizen ... if I can be locked up without charges, held indefinitely without a trial or the opportunity for a defense, what's the benefit of being an American. Throughout my life I'd been brought up to believe we were unique on the face of the planet ... and in the course of history ... because we had all those constitutional protections.

I know, I know ... there are those who would say those things don't happen. But the fact is, those things could happen .. and now they could happen to me!

Suddenly, while I was talking to the uniformed security guard from the White Sands Missile Testing Facility, I understood what it felt like to live in the Soviet Union and to be stopped by a KGB officer ... or to live in Germany during the early 1940s and to be stopped by someone in a black leather trench coat and rakish fedora.

It doesn't matter how innocent your actions might be. The only thing that counts is what the security guard had for breakfast ... or if his wife didn't give him a hard time on his way out the door. The only thing that matters for the rest of one's life is how that armed security guard is feeling right at that moment.

Maybe those things don't happen. Maybe they don't happen, yet. But, everything is in place for those things to happen ... and my experience in life tells me that if a bad thing CAN happen ... it WILL happen ... at some point.

Oh, yeah, AAA? ... they never called back.

A county road crew eventually stopped. They had a metric lug wrench in their tool box. We changed the tire and drove the rest of the way to Alamogordo at 45 mph.

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