Monday, June 20, 2011

Reflections on Weapon Cool -- Reprise

(Note: A friend asked me to re-post a piece I wrote back on December 26, 2004, while I was in Indonesia. While I was writing it, of course, on that very day, the tsunami struck. Anyhow, here it is. On occasion, I will try to re-run a few of the old postings; I didn't keep them all, but I do have a few. Hope you enjoy it.) 

Maybe the incessant rain in this part of the Far Abroad reminds me of past assignments in other rainy parts of the world, or maybe I'm just going gaga. Whatever it is, for the last couple of days I've been thinking about the Good Old Days, some 20 years ago, when I was stupid but young and having a ball running around in Central America and learned a few valuable lessons, lessons about what I'll call "weapon cool."
Those were great days to be a young officer working at an American Embassy. It was the height of the Central American civil wars and there was a constant adrenaline rush. Every day was an adventure; you didn't know how any day would begin or end. The people you worked with and met came straight out of a Hollywood casting call: plump Colonels wearing Ray-Bans; loopy foreign human rights activists; loopy foreign "mercenaries" down for the summer to fight Communism; loopy guerrillas and their loopy leaders; loopy US Congressmen and staff who would drop in and create havoc as they pursued some loopy leftist agenda . . . it was great. It was also very dangerous; but, as I said, I was both stupid and young, so danger was part of the attraction -- much less so now, I assure you (still stupid, but not young.)
We carried guns. Everybody in the Embassy had a favorite; guns were a constant source of conversation, debate and entertainment. We'd spend every Saturday at the range doing what you should do at a gun range, burning off many boxes of rounds and drinking many rounds of beer . . . like I said, stupid and young. My favorite weapon was a Colt 1911 Government Model .45. I loved that gun. First of all, it looked cool (more on this later), made a very nice roar, and its large, relatively slow moving slugs would make a very satisfying thud when they hit bowling pins, sending them spinning away. The Always Lovely Mrs. Chief Diplomad became a very good shot; her favorite piece was a S&W .357 Highway Patrol model (firing .38 Specials) -- she also was quite good with the small Colt .380 I had bought her, no mean feat. Every once in a while, I confess, she would concern me: the silhouette targets she picked seemed always to have a villain who looked more than a bit like me; and she would put some very tight groups into, ahem,shall we say odd places.
When we would have a party at our house, we'd set up a gun room. As each guest arrived, he would drop his weapon(s) on a large bed in this room; after the party, it was amusing to watch well-oiled guests pawing through the pile of handguns trying to find theirs, trying to remember which one each had brought, "The Browning, yours or mine?" More than once Mrs. CD or I would find a weapon or a fully loaded magazine left behind in the always locked room and would then call each invitee to ask, "Amigo, did you leave something behind?" Please, please remember, dear reader, back then I was both stupid and young: the most exalted state to which man can aspire. But I digress . . .
One of the most colorful of the cast of characters with whom I worked was a local Army Colonel (actually a LTC -- but nobody dared point that out to him) seconded to the National Police and made the Deputy Police Chief. Let's call him Jose Garcia (not even close to his real name). Jose Garcia, a tough, tough SOB, was a veteran of years of rural and urban combat against the guerrillas, and a member of a feared military intelligence unit before being sent to keep the civilian police force in line with the military. He never seemed to stop working or to sleep. He spoke good English and despite the lack of what we would consider a good education was well-read in history, especially military history. Not more than about 5'5" but built like a tank and born to command, he had an intense stare that would melt much bigger subordinates into quivering puddles of jelly. His famous "What did you say?" was not something any of his men ever wanted to hear. He was also remarkable for being on time and not tolerating anyone being even a minute tardy -- this in a country where 2 o'clock meant, on a good day, any time between 2:30 and 3:30.
One December, along with other members of the Embassy, I was invited to a party at Garcia's house, a genuinely spectacular place on a ridge overlooking the city: swimming pool, movie theater, enormous yard . . . all straight out of Hollywood. At the party, we Embassy types joked among ourselves about how great it was that a LTC on a salary of about $150/month, by being thrifty, making good investments, and using supermarket coupons to squeeze those pennies out of the family budget could come to live like a sultan . . . amazing, inspirational. Anyhow, late into the party, the Colonel, who had been knocking back Scotch pretty heavily all evening, came up to a friend and me, fixed us with that patented stare and blurted out, "The American Army . . . it has become homosexual!"
Our Foreign Service Institute (FSI) doesn't include this scenario in its training modules, and no question on the FS exam covers this situation. As the more senior of the two Americans present, I felt compelled to say something biting and witty, so I let fly with a brilliant, "Uh, why?" The Colonel literally threw down his drink, reached into his jacket, pulled out a Government Model .45 and waved it at us. Let me stop for a second and note that from prior conversations, the Colonel knew that I was a Colt 45 man -- which proved a good thing. Now, with the Colonel's 45 about three inches from my face, I wondered how many other people had had this as their last vision on earth. "Look at how beautiful she is! This is a real gun, a gun for a man! A Colt 45! Not that sissy Beretta 9mm your Army is buying!" Let me stop for another second, the Colonel had been distraught for some time that the US military -- whom he admired beyond words -- had decided to move from the .45 to the 9mm, especially to an Italian model 9mm . One other note, he had rather strong and negative views on anything Italian (I don't know why, and it did not console him to be told that the US military's Beretta's would be made in USA.)
"You, you know the 45. The 9mm is for sissies (huecos) with tight pants! Do you know how many times I have shot somebody with a 9mm?" My Embassy colleague and I assumed this either a rhetorical question or one to which he already had an answer, and we did not try to answer it. "Twice. Both times I shoot them and they get up! I have to shoot them again!" He now removed the 45 from my face, holding it in both hands, he looked down at it, "With this gun I only would need to shoot somebody one time! He doesn't get back up! This is a beautiful gun . . . people see it and they know you are serious. Most of the time I don't even have to shoot."
Not long after this party I was transferred to another post and lost track of Colonel Garcia. I thought of him a couple of years ago while discussing modern weapon systems with a US Defense Attache. He, a Navy officer, agreed with me that the new warships generally didn't have the look of the old ones. The new ships were all boxes and rounded shapes and antennas jutting out. Yes, yes, each one carried more firepower than the entire Bulgarian army has possessed in its entire history; the greatest concentration of lethal force since G-d unleashed the flood, etc. But, but, they didn't look cool. The two of us, with the help of our Scottish advisor Johnny Walker (Black Label), decided that the ultimate cool look for a machine was the Harley-Davidson. All coolness in weapons had to be measured in those terms, i.e., is this the Harley-Davidson of weapons? One looks at a Harley and knows that it might not necessarily be the fastest bike on the road, but it's a serious piece of machinery -- it exudes menace and power.
We both decided that the ultimate cool weapon had to be an Iowa class battleship. Having seen the USS New Jersey underway, heading for the Panama Canal, I assure you it's a sight you do not soon forget. With its huge guns and breathtakingly beautiful design, it had a calming influence on anybody thinking of getting rambunctious with the USA. The Iowa class ships belong on the sea lanes or in a Museum of Modern Art.
Anyhow, before I make this too long, let me report that about one month ago I found the list of the coolest weapon systems that we had drawn up. I present it here -- just for fun and in no order -- and recognizing that it is partial and done in a bit of a haze:
Ships: Iowa Class Battleships
Aircraft: B-17 Flying Fortress, P-47 Thunderbolt, A-26 Invader, A-1 Skyraider, B-36 Peacemaker, F-86 Sabre, F-4 Phantom, F-14 Tomcat, B-52 Stratofortress, B-58 Hustler, AH-1 Cobra, AH-64 Apache
Small Arms: AK-47 Kalashnikov, M-1 Garand, Model 1928 Thompson, and OF COURSE the Colt .45 of Colonel Garcia fame
Vehicles: HMMV, M-1A2 Abrams, M-2 Bradley
Other systems: George W. Bush (Note: link no longer works right for some reason! Try it you will see.)
That was as far as we got . . . Oh, and Colonel Garcia? Some years after I left Central America a friend told me that Garcia had died as he would have liked, i.e., in a gun fight against Communist insurgents. Another friend assured me that this version was nonsense and that Garcia had died in a car crash, drunk as a skunk. I can't vouch for the reliability of either piece of information and for all I know, Garcia remains alive, still carrying his beloved and cool 45 -- the one so cool he didn't have to shoot it, most of the time.


  1. Battleships? I remember back when the Soviets [RIP] were building huge blue water ships, and a US Navy man told me that the US's biggest fear about those things was that, in case of a moveon NATO, the Norwegians, British,and Turks would sink them all before anyone in the USN had a chance to make his name sinking one.

  2. Agree on the Iowa class floating fortresses.

    Re: the A-26 Invader nee: Martin B-26, I much preferred the A-20 from Douglas. It was faster, flew higher and lower, more maneuverable, much more suited for low altitude combat support but still quite adaptable for medium bomber use 4 miles up. Plus they made almost three times as many. The Invader did have a longer service life, by many years, but most insiders attributed that to politics, Martin having more pull than Douglas.

    Would like to nominate the Northrup P-61 Black Widow to your list. With it's tri-level multi-paned dog house sitting atop the central gondola, along with the two husky P-38 type booms, and it's almost black night-fighter livery scheme, in the day to my teen-aged eyes near Mines Field, California, where it was test flown, it was toughness and guts personified.

  3. The P-61! Yes, you're absolutely right. What a menacing, cool aircraft. Good point on the A-20, I guess I was biased toward the A-26 having seen one up close on static display at Hurlbert Airfield. We probably should have included the Lancaster on that list; we were a little too USA inclined, perhaps. I blame it on the Johnny Walker . . . .

  4. One more for your list of "coolest" aircraft: the A-10 Thunderbolt II (aka "Warthog") ground attack fighter.

    One look at that thing and you know it means business. Especially if you're looking at the Warthog from the front, staring down the muzzles of that tank-shredding 30mm Gatling.

    --Wes S.

  5. Coming to this late, but I always had a soft spot for PT Boats and PBR's.