This is Post #1 in the Series “Going to Afghanistan“.
Going to Afghanistan
~ “In the beginning” – but in a country with a five thousand year history there really are no new beginnings.
I went to Afghanistan because my father went to Afghanistan. My parents and I were living in Washington D.C. at the time, my father was with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC); Assistant Chief of the Common Carrier Bureau to be exact. It was the beginning of February 1958 and Washington being Washington people run into each other and my father, Fred W. Clayton, “bumped into an old Burma hand” and they began talking.
It is an old story; this story about going to Afghanistan and how and why. There are at least a dozen versions, rewritten at least fifty times, if only in my mind. The problem is that it’s always so hard to say when the story really started, when that path “less taken” was first trod upon and whether the story is really more mine or his or just more about Afghanistan itself. It’s hard to put a face upon Afghanistan, it is too old and too complicated and too remote in time.
America is different, it has a face. The face of America is George Washington, on coins and dollar bills, portraits in the galleries and glorious (if not made-up) pictures of crossings of the Delaware and Valley Forge and swearing oaths on Bibles. The only face of note ever seen from Afghanistan was that of the Buddha at Bamian, the standing statutes, there really are (or were) two. Both of these faces however have long been faceless, since the days of Tamerlane (Timor the Great); when his troops literally defaced the statues by removing the eyes and forehead and leaving only the mouth to tell the tale.
But I get ahead of myself or go too far back. Afghanistan was old when Christendom was young. Even the young Buddhists that brought their religion to Bagram and Bamian some hundreds of years B.C. were treading upon an ancient land, populated and mostly free. But that brings us back to Burma, home of the Shwedagon Pagoda, and the airport in Rangoon, and the reason why my father was in Burma in the first place (in 1951 and 1952). He was there to build an airport, longest runway in all of Asia, made for jets and jet aircraft and designed to change all that once was Burma into something new and more notable and more important in the scheme of things than just a country of elephants and teak might be; teak now no longer useful in making battleships for war which is why the British liked the place the first time – and took it.
So it was a Burma hand and six months in Burma and the building on an airport that brought my father to Afghanistan. Small world, a “small world story” as my father used to say. But the world is really larger than all of that, goes back further, has more twists and turns, not just simple soundbites.
Fred was an Eagle Scout and scouting had a motto – “Be Prepared”. Fred had a hundred theories on life, the first one was about readiness and preparation. Simply stated the idea suggests that doors open to those first ready, those that are prepared and willing for the task at hand. If one wished for a good job or adventure “be prepared for it”, “do your homework”, “get an education or a better education”, “gain the experience that you may need”. His words still haunt me and Afghanistan intrigued and haunted him.
Before there was Burma there was Coalinga, California; small town rich from oil. Fred’s father was very poor then (and there). He had been rich earlier in life, cattle ranches in Nevada where in his early years Fred grew up. The family lived in the Ruby Valley, Elko County (Nevada); in a remote house and place in the most beautiful corner of the world one could find. At least that is what those partial to Nevada might say, the simple life; wood cooking stove, stone chimney, the vistas of water and mountains at your front door and so few to share it with you almost really wished for a neighbor, not just cattle – but cattle country it was and had been and would be perhaps forever more. And there were Indians too, and wild horses that the Clayton’s helped keep well-bred, letting the best studs out free each spring to mingle with their freer cousins of the open range. The Indians they helped, blankets for the cold, food when they were hungry; the Indians were there first and there was a human need if not an obligation.
The banks were dishonest then, as now. The Clayton money was used for speculation and everything was lost in the mid 1920’s, Mr. Clayton (senior) was ruined and in time his health was ruined too. The family tried again in Colorado, cow smallpox wiped them out so it was California and the Golden State and a community literally built on oil that offered the hope of retirement and a better education for Mr. Clayton’s boy, Fred.
On one spring day on the hills above Coalinga Eagle Scout Fred Clayton (16) sat with his girlfriend on a rock overlooking the oil and town below. Coalinga was somewhat boring. The vast reaches of the San Joaquin Valley, “desert brought to flower” by Hetch-Hetchy and other dams and the power of modern irrigation had lost its bloom. Life should be about adventure, dark romance in an environment of peril if not risk; the challenges to man come only in the wild places, the far-off places, the places not completely settled and almost completely free. Afghanistan (if not Nevada) was the ticket. “Some day I’ll go to Afghanistan”, he might have said; but, anyway they sat and talked and painted pictures in their minds of wild places and free, romantic and very foreign; places important to imagine and almost impossible to describe. They called that place “Afghanistan”.
[First posted: 2010.02.26 / Friday – Going to Afghanistan]
“Afghanistan Central” at Qala Bist.com is linked HERE: