Sunday, October 23, 2011

Zen of Trial Counsel

Taken Sept 2011 near Kumamodo.
After I got back from China I moved from Legal Assistance to Trial Counsel.  In non-military lawyer terms, that means I went from be a normal non-criminal attorney helping people with random legal problems (like bad landlords, creditors, divorces, and adoptions) to Prosecutor (an actor for the government). 

In the first job I did not have to go to court or represent a point of view in front of a court of law.  A Court Of Law is far more structured, detailed, and unforgiving than writing a Last Testament or arranging for custody. 

In the court of law, I have set deadlines that if I miss them a potential perpetrator could walk free.  I have motions to exclude or include testimony or real evidence; I have victims to talk to, witnesses to prepare and arrange transportation; tactics to analyze; and Convening Authorities to advise.

Legal Assistance, while important, is less stressful.  When I first took up the reins as the Legal Assistance Attorney, I also became the Officer-in-Charge of that section with four Marines to train and educate to how I want my office run and how to protect our clients.  I felt underwater.

Taken Sept 2011 at the Springhead near Kumamodo.
I called and emailed other attorneys I knew who were doing the same job all across the Marine Corps.  Some had more experience than me, others had experienced attorneys to ask those questions to, and a few were in the same boat--alone and unafraid.  I learned fast and created an office that worked efficiently.  I wasn't underwater for long.  I began to swim and even dive for oysters. 

When I left for China in June, I had a shop that I could leave for 4 weeks and know that I would not come back to a mess or ethical violations.  In fact, I had left my office for four weeks and it held solid for those four weeks.  When I came home from China, I had a new office, with different Marines, different duties and I had more demanding responsibilities.

Trial Counsel has deadlines.  90 days or 120 days are my most important deadlines.  If I miss that deadline, I am getting bad paper--unless I have an absolutely airtight excuse.  I have to be aware of every investigation going on; know what the Commanding Officers are planning in each case; predict the outcomes if things progress in a certain fashion; and I need to show results.

In the month of July, I had two guilty pleas that I walked into court.  I learned a lot.  The deals expected too much, my evidence was not sufficient, and the judge came down lighter than I expected.  I also had a contested case that nearly backfired--I had my butt handed to me, along with two other attorneys' rear ends.  I had to put my tail between my legs and beg forgiveness from the victim and the Convening Authority.  Reputation damaged.

Lesson Learned?  Nearly.  Since then, and with learning how to draft charges better and talk to Convening Authorities, I've gotten better and so has my office.  My Marines stepped up and have done everything I've asked of them.

Underwater?  I don't think I'll ever feel like I'm above water.  I'll probably always feel like I'm treading water in this job.

Countryside near Kumamodo
Trial Counsel is a job where you do teeter on a limb.  You have to balance between competing interests.  The only solid ground you have is what is right beneath you.  And sometimes, that ground isn't all that close.

The judge in the July guilty dives talked to me and the defense counsel afterwards about how we performed.  He gave an interesting take on what the Prosecutor's job is.  He said "Your job is to present the evidence, not seek a conviction.  You are suppose to seek Justice."

Those words are with me every day.  Those words have become my new mantra in working through this role--Present the Evidence and allow for Justice.  How I present evidence will dictate an outcome (where the tactics and procedures come in).  But I shouldn't be looking to pull the wool over the Jury's eyes to get a desired outcome.  Others can want blood, but I shouldn't.  I should be looking to present the case and allow for Justice.

I did that in a case in September.  I had two cases that saw a courtroom, one for a sentence and the other for sufficiency.  I think the outcomes reflected the evidence in the case.  The first I presented evidence for returned a sentence in excess of what we'd been getting before--I'd learned from the July cases that I need to adjust my tactics and procedures to make sure everything made it in and triggered the correct responses.  The other case failed to meet sufficiency--but I presented the evidence.  I didn't try to create a mountain out of a mole hill.  I went in with what I had and laid it out--and defense counsel performed his duties admirably.  If it doesn't work, then it doesn't work. 

Working with the assumption that I am suppose to present the evidence and Justice will be done by the jury or the judge, stress about an outcome disappears.  I'm no longer worried that I'll get bad paper for not obtaining an outcome--because I don't decide that. 

"I represent the Government, and I am here to present the evidence in this case."

Taken Sept 2011 at the Springhead near Kumamodo

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Observations in China Part 3

This was the view we had from our hotel window
Temple of Heaven...Great Wall...Forbidden City...Summer Palace

Holy Sh!t.

Temple of Heaven is stunning. We spent a little over an hour there--and I broke my expensive camera. In China all the retirees over 60 (or 55, I can't remember) have free access to all the state parks. Because of that when you walk into any state park you'll find dozens if not a hundred or more retirees in the park doing Tai Chi or practicing Buddhism or whatever else.

Older gentleman creating characters with water and practicing Buddhism

Tile on the Temple of Heaven is blue

In Beijing we ran into a theme with the Temples and Palaces--Are we done yet?  Once you think you've seen the main building, you go around it and find something even grander.

From the temple viewing the buildings holding the prayers.
I broke this camera on my way down.
Temple of Heaven had the highest point thing where the Emperor did a ritual invoking Heaven. After this platform was a temple area housing wood or bone sheets with writing. After this first one, we went into a second set of temples holding even more important writings. Then finally we entered the real important one with the prayer the Emperor said on that platform.

Throne . . . building?  Too large to be a simple room.

This is the beginning of the actual city.  This is where the Emperor, his wife and concubines and servants lived.
Add another two outstanding buildings and courtyards and you'll have what happened in the Forbidden City--3 great buildings or so before the actual Throne building and celebration room. Behind that and a few other buildings was the actual city for the Concubines, Empress, children, Eunics and servants. We spent maybe 2 hours there and saw about a quarter of the place. Our feet hurt bad that morning.

Summer Palace covered walk way.  It went on, and on, and on, and . . .  man, it took a while.

Doesn't look too far, right?  Half a mile away at least to the boat house.  Too foot sore to climb to the temples.
The Summer Palace...beautiful and 292 hectacres (722 acres). Um...beautiful. Stunning. Lot of walking. Lot of people. I don't think I can describe it as well as I'd like.  We didn't even come close to seeing it all.

We're on the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!!!  Freaking AWESOME!!
I skipped over the Great Wall. Only because the Great Wall made such an Awe-Inspiring Impact on us. The Wall has an interesting history. Emperor Qin had is built, initially, of dirt and maybe stone. Later, much later, another emperor had parts of it built up to into the actual stone wall to protect against the barbarian hordes belonging to the Khans. As a defense it failed. Ghenis just went around the Wall instead of trying to go through it. That is a problem with fortified defenses.

We took a gondola up to tower 14 (I think) and went from there. The view . . . is just stunning. It feels like the top of the world. And the Wall just goes on and on in both directions, up and down. And you know that thousands of people died building it. The stone is uneven, eroded, and different colors. The steps are sometimes deep and sometimes shallow and often times dangerous.

Foreman's day off on these stairs.

And for some reason, my mom got it into her head that my dad and I wanted to run together on the Great Wall. So, she had us bring our running clothes and shoes. We got up on the Wall, took a group photo, then my dad and I plotted our short--and I mean short--run along the Wall. We ran about half a mile total . . . but we ran on the GREAT WALL!!! We spent an hour on the GREAT WALL! Dude, it was so freakin' awesome!!!

Top of the World...on the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!!!
Then we walked along the Wall, down a couple towers and then actually off the Wall on the the ground just inside. We hit our walking time limit (30 mins out, 30 mins back and about 10 mins left to just enjoy the Wall).
Click to see larger: Great Wall of China!


Yeah, China was awesome to visit.

Click on the image below to enlarge.
This is the view into China.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Observations in China Part 2


At the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an.
 After the Amazing two full days in Shanghai we flew to Xi'an (Xian, Chi'ang--there were a few other spellings for the name). Xi'an was the first capital of China when Emperor Qin (the first emperor, played by Jet Li in the 3rd Mummy movie with Brandon Frazer) united China for the first time. He ruled for 15 years and his son for 4. Then some peasants killed Qin's son and things changed...but China mostly remained. For the most part China has pretty much been the same basic area for over 2,200 years. Whether it has functioned as one country the entire time is debatable--especially when there are sections of 150-300 years of "Warring States/Kingdoms" following a dynasty. I don't know enough of Chinese history...but I'd love to take a class about it or maybe watch a good History Channel series on it.

Emperor Qin was a Bad Mother F#cker. 

Not Qin, but a soldier of some sort.
Qin killed off all the defeated warlords in order to create China. He had to kill their families as well. (Machiavelli should be inspired--as will the Evil Overlord people.)   Everyone that could claim a title was put the ax. He did this to make sure that he was the only game in town.  When you're creating a new country, especially from other countries, you are creating a new order, so you have to be the only source of authority. The Emperor--and successors--became the only game in town and giving rise to a consistent unified country.

You probably should enlarge this one to read it.
So, Qin made sure he was it. One ruler of one country. We might think that once you've killed of the challengers and their relatives that you'd be safe... Not for Qin. He was afraid of death and that he would be attacked by his enemies after he died. That is why he was drinking Mercury--his doctor told him that it would help prolong his life and help him obtain immortality. Yes, 2,200 years ago a Bad@ss was looking for the secret to immortal life. Well, he kicked the bucket at 49 years old from drinking Mercury.

Pit 1

Before he died he was having his tomb prepared--even though he was looking for the secret to immortality (always be prepared, anyone?). Over 700,000 people helped create this tomb. Today, you wouldn't even know it was a tomb, it looks like a large hill Northeast of Xi'an. Unlike the Egyptians, Qin's tomb was covered by dirt. So were the over 7,000 warriors created to protect Qin.  He wanted to surprise his enemies in death with an army to defend him.  Qin believed that the warriors would protect him against his enemies in death. We'll never know the answer to that--unless you think the Mummy movie was based on a true story.

Most of these guys are being pieced back together and will probably be transported to exhibits.

The Terracatta Warriors were not listed in any official writing in Qin's time or his son's. If they were text, they were lost in the Peasant Revolt that killed Qin's son. Anyway, the Peasants broke into the tombs containing the Warriors (not Qin's primary tomb--probably afraid the Bad@ss would rise up and kick ass), stole their real weapons and destroyed a lot of the warriors and set the tomb on fire.

The chrome-plating kept the weapons sharp.  And the ancient Chinese had this way back when--but lost the technique.  I wonder what other techniques/methods we've lost and rediscovered or forgotten completely.  Maybe space travel.
Over 2000 years later a farm supervisor and three workers were digging a new well and found the Warriors. The Chinese officials at the time thought it would take 7-10 days to dig them up . . . 30 years later and they are not finished yet.
Plenty of Warriors were destroyed during the Peasant Uprising.

You can see the burned wood from when the Peasants lit the tomb on fire.  And people are still escavating.
My mom kept saying "They don't do anything small in China." I can see why.

Pit 1 is the largest pit.  Qin's people dug the lanes for the Warriors, built wood slats to cover them, laying a layer or two of protective fabric, then finally burying them.  You can see why a farming crew found this pit.

Careful - He's watching you.
 We saw more than just the Warriors in Xi'an.  We went to a school and clinic out in a village.  My parents and their friend are teachers and visiting the school helps qualifying this trip as a work related event.  We saw the Old City Wall, the Wild Goose Pagoda, and some traditional performances specific to the region.

Old City Wall in Xi'an.  Built, rebuilt and rebuilt a long time ago. 

The back of our legs were sunburned at this point.

Warrior at Heart
I was knealing behind the thing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Observations in China part 1

China was AWESOME!  Don't want to live there, but the places we went to were totally mind-blowing.

We spent a couple of days in Shanghai.  The city is truly international and modern.  We spent the first day on a bus tour going all around the city of 20 million people.  We didn't see everything, but we saw a lot.  We spent a good amount of time on the Bund, which is where the foreigners were restricted for a few hundred years--particularly in the 1800 through about 1937.  The buildings along the Bund are European and American in design--some of the most beautiful Gothic and Western design.

This is on the Bund.
After walking and riding around most the day--just getting adjusted to being in China and getting the feel for the tourist mindset and realizing that we would be foot sore alot--we took a boat ride along the river that splits Shanghai in half.  We went around the Bund and the newer, recently developed city center area.

Click on the picture to see all.  Panarama of the new city center and Bund

Bund at night

The second day in Shanghai is when our tour actually started.  We went to a Shanghai City museum/expo center detailing the develop of the city itself--from a small fishing village some 2000 years ago to the primary port city of the province and China several centuries ago to the international city it became following the Opium Wars and finally to the city it has become now.  Kind of boring, but it put things in to perspective for the city and for the country.  People having been living in Shanghai for over 2000 years.  Documented and all.

After that we walked across the street to the Shanghai History Museum.  It had less to do with Shanghai and more to do with historical and cultural artifacts.

The Bronze Exhibit was the most important by far.  There was a large water vessel (I'm thinking big enough to hold a 600 pound pig to cook in soup.  It was commissioned by a ruler of something and the maker was given title for making it.  It is awesome and impressive.  And the woman who donated it to the museum has had in her family for over 400 years. 

Ding food vessel with interlaced Dragons and Scale - made sometime between the early 6th century BC and 476 BC

China is freakin' OLD.  It has a rich history and our Westerncentric history classes completely miss the entirety of what Asia offered to the world's cultural development.  Everyone in our group who saw the Bronze Art from way back 4000-6000 years ago thought of South American art produced by the Inca, Mayans and Aztec; and the Native Americans with the tribal clothes from about the same time.  The idea that our First Nation people walked across the Bering Straight is Fact, not theory.  It happened . . . who knows when for sure, but it sure as hell happened. 

All of us at the Yu Garden in Shanghai - absolutely an awesome Ming style garden.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Failed Blog Post

I've been struggling all week with an idea for a blog post.  The idea's a good one and relevant to understanding current . . . struggles.  Really, I swear, it could be a good post.

However, there are bounds within which I must stay.  When I sat down a couple of days ago to start outlining my thoughts, I had a small thought in the back of my head.  "Should I post this?  Could I get in trouble for writing this?"

Those are important thoughts to have when you want to take part in the public world.  As my wife tells me (in fairly similar words to what my mom said), "Be careful what you say."

Freedom of Speech has its limits.  And being careless about what you say can do more than be embarrassing.

In light of my desire to post something, I'm posting this link to L.E. Modisett's website.  His blog has nothing whatsoever to do with my thoughts, but I like his post and the intelligent debate in the comments to his post.  And I'm a fan of his books.

Additionally, I added a story section to this blog.  I haven't added anything yet, but give me some time to organize my thoughts, stories and whatever else might fit into that area.

Wife and I in San Francisco in June 2010.  Just felt like putting up a photo.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Time as Human Construct

Is time a Human construct?  This physicist explains that Time does not exist.  A little too abstract for me, I think.

Normal people--those of us who don't think at the same level as Albert Einstein--work through our lives believing the Time flows like a river.  It goes generally in one direction, down hill and out to sea.

From Iwakuni Castle looking out to sea.  August 2010.

The physicist makes the argument that each moment is independent of the next.  In some abstract sense, I can understand that, but how is that possible in reality?  I think there are two ways to think about this.  First, with human example, and, second, with natural example in the absence of humans.

1) Human example...School.  Getting anywhere in school requires that you build knowledge upon other knowledge.  I'm smart, not super-smart, but smart enough to get most concepts without too much trouble--except maybe tax law and "On Being," German philosophy is a little out there for me.  It takes time to learn something...reading this statement takes time.  At least time as we've perceived it.  Look at the clock on the computer screen.  Time as moved.  I guess the real question is have we constructed time, or are we merely tracking Time?

I'd say we're tracking Time.  We can live in the moment and try to establish that every moment is distinct and independent of the one before it, but walking involves putting one foot in front of the other and repeating that motion over and over.  And that takes Time.  One foot must remain in place (usually) while the other moves forward in order for the movement of walking to continue.  The act of doing something is itself a moment...Think pictures.  A picture is a snapshot of time.

Taken at a park 40km south of Iwakuni in March 2011

That drop is in the act of falling.  Forever that picture will only show that moment (until I delete it or something). The drop will never progress further towards the water below, nor will it regress up to the source.  It is solid and independent.  However, where this logic fails is that the picture is a picture--only a single moment.  The drop continued to fall and made it to the puddle below.  I took thirty shots or more just to get that one above.  I used a camera to freeze time--and a really cool lens.

2) To prove that time is not a human construct just look to nature.  Take a look at the Grand Canyon.  That geological wonder took TIME to construct...form...erode (whatever the correct term is) into its current state.  The Colorado River has spent the last 17 million years (give or take a million) making its way through that portion of the earth.  Geologists and other natural scientists have studied the Grand Canyon for over a century.  One of the things they can say is that the Grand Canyon offers a record of 3 of the 4 geological eras.  What that means is that the Grand Canyon has kept track of what has happened.  Layer upon layer of rock, sand, ash and dirt, a geological timeline exists showing what happened in the past.

Essentially, Time tracks change.  17 million years to create the Grand Canyon.  A blink of any eye for a drop of water to fall 15 inches.  However long to read this blog.

The reason I say that Time tracks change is that Change is the easiest way to show the movement of Time.  The difference between one moment and the next is Change.  The human body is constantly changing--albeit in small and mostly insignificant ways.  Our hair is constantly growing--hence why men who shave have 5 o'clock shadows at the end of the day.  Our nails grow, sometimes faster when we're stressed.  Nature is constantly changing--rivers move, ice melts, plants grow and die.  The tic of the second hand moving around the clock is just a change that tracks Change.

Each change is dependent on the change the occurred before it.  Each step we take forward takes us farther in that direction.  Undoing a change is itself impossible.  It is why we can't rewrite history.  The present is dependent on the past.  Believing that each moment is independent of the moment before it ignores how we got to the present.

I may have missed the point the physicist was after, but Time exists and humans merely track it and use it and depend upon it.  The only human construct in Time is the methods we use to measure time. 

Taken in the processing building at the Uptapo Airport in Thailand at 0256 on 21 February 2011.  I had spent the last 4 hours on the worse bus ride I've experienced; driven by a man that kept his foot to the ground the entire way.  I slept for 45 minutes before boarding the flight back to Iwakuni at 0800.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What does Free Speech mean?

I started writing this blog post several weeks ago with the intention of explaining the Supreme Court's ruling on Snyder v. Westboro Church (here is the actual case in pdf at the Supreme Court's websiteSnyder v. Phelps).  Five minutes into writing I realized I wasn't really writing for people, I was writing for lawyers.  I was starting to prepare a brief.  For all those non-lawyer types, a brief is a breakdown of the case, not tighty-whities.  The first thing a law student learns (after getting over the sticker shock of the costs) is how to break a case down into Facts, Issue, Reasoning, and Holding.

Anyway, the brief is a great method to understand a case, but it isn't the way to explain it.  I think the humanity and history of the actual case is lost.  Facts fill that area, but only the facts the Court uses to make its decision are important, not the history or humanity—that is how you end up with court decisions like Dred Scott and Plessy v. Furguson.  Sometimes the facts used by the Court are completely irrelevant to what the case was really about.  
History: Matthew Snyder, a Marine, died serving his country.  His father, Mr. Snyder, buried him in Maryland.  Funeral mass was at a Catholic Church.  A notice was published in the local paper about Matthew's funeral.  The Westboro Church, from Kansas, saw that notice and planned to protest.  Westboro believes that the fate of our country is damned because of the flexible morality of society--homosexuality, support of Israel, Catholics, and plenty of other things.  Over the last twenty years, the Church has been spreading their word by making public appearances at well attended events, such as funerals, political speeches, parades, and fun-runs.  (Every time I ran the Bloomsday 12k Run in Spokane, WA, some old guy had a Westboro-type sign condemning the country.) 

Westboro notified the Westminster police about their intention to protest.  On the day of the funeral, Westboro protested 1000 feet from the church on public land.  Mr. Snyder saw only the tops of the signs on that day.  His friends let him know what was going on.  In furtherance of their...proselytizing...Westboro wrote and published online what the Court refers to as an epic.  In this web post, Westboro attacked Matthew's parents for failing to raise him correctly and continue their disturbing assault on Mr. Snyder and the country.  Mr. Snyder read this epic a few weeks after the funeral.  Already grieving for his son, Mr. Snyder suffered further torment by reading that epic.

In my opinion, and basically everybody else not overcome with hate and bigotry, Westboro's message is expressed solely in hateful words.  These hateful words are directed at everyone reading their signs.  Westboro's preaching method seems to be designed to incite action.

Issue: That is the big deal about this case.  Westboro uses hurtful words to draw attention to their cause and they do it in a way that draws attention by going to funerals.  They have made a large name for themselves by picketing the funerals of our fallen troops.  In answer, veterans have created barriers for the grieving families covering up the Westboro picketers.  This whole drama is larger than Mr. Snyder, but his experience is the first to make it to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Snyder went to court based on the tort Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress.  This tort isn't about hurt feelings.  It is about emotional abuse and the complete destruction of a person's emotional wellbeing.  The plaintiff needs to prove physical side-effects to the emotional distress.  Mr. Snyder had it in spades.  In fact, Westboro abandoned any attempt to fight this battle on the tort theory--they kind of said "Yeah, we did it, we caused his additional pain and suffering, but we're protected by the First Amendment, so you can't come after us."

Reasoning: How can the First Amendment protect Westboro?  These people go out to hurt feelings so everyone else will pay attention to them.  They're like the snot-nosed, bratty kid all the other kids ignore in the back of the classroom using rude noises and bad behavior to get attention.

Here's how the First Amendment protects these kids: Was the nature of the speech Private or was it Public?

Why does that matter?  It matters because Private speech is calling your neighbor a lying cheating bastard who sleeps with donkeys to a group of his friends.  While it might feel good, your neighbor probably isn't the subject of public discourse.  In this case, unless you can prove that your neighbor is exactly what you said and doing what you said he was, you can be sued for defamation and probably a couple of other torts.

On the opposite side is Public Speech, which is calling a highly elected official a prevaricator pilfering the public treasuries to purchase his personal pleasures.  The actions of a public actor are subject to public discourse.  We should have the ability to discuss certain things in public free from the freezing effects of silly things, like lawsuits and criminal law.

See the difference?  Even if it was clear, how does that help here?  The Supreme Court's opinion has almost the same problem.  Where is the line?

"Speech deals with matters of public concern when it can 'be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social or other concern to the community,' or when it 'is a subject of legitimate news interest; that is, a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public."  Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. ___ (2011) (internal cites omitted).  So, your neighbor and the donkeys aren't for public consumption, but the politician using public funds to pay his prostitutes is of public concern and a legitimate news interest.

So, a group using hurtful—hateful—words to convey their view is protected because content is the real key.  Westboro’s hurt-speech is about a topic pertaining to public concern—the course of our country.  I think if the Supreme Court hadn’t felt that the “content” wasn’t of public concern, then they would have rejected Westboro’s appeal. 

But, as rude and hurtful the words are, those words address a topic of public concern.  The First Amendment requires that we accept that anyone can express their view—regardless of how we feel about.  That is how the KKK and the Aryan Nation are able to hold parades and rallies and have websites.  We have to be able to let those Morons say their peace.

Then we can tell them to shut the F-up and go about our business.  It isn’t easy and we’ll never feel right about it.  We want to return a slap to the face with a fist.  Turning the other cheek is ideal, but hard. 

The best way to handle the slap to the face is respond with something equally protected.  Buy a motorcycle and join the Veterans that counterprotest.
I did not take any of these photos and do not claim copyright to them.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Rockin' it in Narita

           I arrived in Narita around 9:20 am on a flight from a Hiroshima.  I got off the small plane, walked into the domestic arrival terminal for All Nippon Airline and followed the trail to the international connection area.  I was surprised at the line.  Usually the only line was four people waiting to go through security.  This time the room was full and going out into the hall.  The 40 minute line gave me no trouble because my layover had me in Narita for the next six and a half hours—so I thought.

            My original flight schedule had a layover of 90 minutes.  That flight would have doubled the cost of my trip and the government can’t have that—for a number of reasons.  But I would have been to Dulles at 9am Friday morning.  And I would have only heard about the quake upon landing.

            In light of the length of my stay, I had plenty of time to finish my homework and read.  It also gave me an experience I haven’t felt in a long time.

            At 2:45 I started to my gate from the free wi-fi spot provided by Google.  I passed the McDonald’s and noticed several people were starting to panic…and I seem to be a little unsteady—maybe I was a little more tired than I thought.  A few women screamed.
Then it clicked: Earthquake!
I stood there thinking “Why are you screaming?  It is just a little quake.”  After about 15 seconds, I realized that this was not a small quake, but a more serious one.
The International Terminal at Narita Airport is designed in an open fashion with plenty of open space and glass art walls with square couches, and tall glass windows common to ever large airport in the world that I have ever been to looking out at the airfield.  There are several pillars, both ornamental and real, covered in tile and not.  Moving walk ways, caf├ęs and restaurants litter the inner parts of the airport.  There is no real safe place to be in an earthquake, however.
When I realized how serious the quake was, about the time it sounded like the building was bouncing to a rap song, several dozen people were cowering between the large glass windows looking out to the airfield and the lowered ceiling of the hall.  Next to or near the windows was not a great idea in my mind.  What if it shattered?  Death by giant glass shards.  Closed casket funeral.

What if the ceiling fell down?  Um…crap.  Damned no matter if the building collapsed on me.

I leaned against what I hoped was a load bearing pillar assuming that it would hold even if the building began to fall around me.  The tile was cool and probably wouldn’t shatter like the decorative glass walls five feet away.  Two minutes or so later the shaking stopped.
My first thought once the shaking stopped was I hope my flight isn’t cancelled.  Then I began to call Jessica.  No go.  Text?  Nope.  Sh!t.  Facebook and email worked.  Thank you, God.

I continued my way to my gate as fast as possible taking pictures with my phone of some of the damage.  On the way CNN was reporting a 7.9 quake.  Several lights and tiles had fallen or shaken loose.  Shops were closing and an announcement was starting to come over the PA.  At this point, one reported death as we watched the tsunami hit Sendai.

Yes, the airport officials were letting us know that an earthquake had just happened, in case someone was mistaken about the current circumstances.

Several small aftershocks rocked us while we watched the news.  Then the large aftershock hit.  I was sitting next to another pillar watching the ceiling.  It moved around quite a bit, but I’m sure it was designed that way.
(We are headed outside at this point)

At this point someone decided it was much better for us to be outside in case another large quake took down the building.  Better us to drown in a tsunami that be crushed in a quake.  At least, that seemed to be the thought after seeing footage of people stranded on the Sendai Airport roof.

We stood outside for three hours before they brought buses for us to sit in.  The workers had supplied us with blankets and towels to keep us warm; plastic sheets and couches to sit on in the meantime.  Rain was coming and that meant we needed cover.  Hence the buses. 

By this time we shuffled into the bus, I’d formed a survivor group with a Navy officer reservist from Portland Oregon returning from an exercise in Korea, an American student/teacher who taught English in Hiroshima but returning for good to the states, and a contractor from the same exercise in Korea. 

K, the Navy officer, is a public affairs officer and spent the last few weeks in a tent and hotel in Seoul on a large scale exercise.  She spent most of her naval career on the enlisted side before her direct commissioning.  I never got her rank, and she never got mine.  I think it was an unspoken deal to not mention rank.  It was a way to ensure that conversation and comfort could be maintained without the strictures of formalities. 

M, the contractor was there as well and flew in from Seoul with K.  I know he served in the military, but I never got what service and how long.  I suspect he retired from the enlisted side of the Navy or Army and moved smoothly into a contractor position where he enjoys himself much more.  He was given a grueling work schedule in Korea for the exercise.  He was talking to his wife on Skype when the 7.1 aftershock hit and we were evacuated from the building. 

K was headed home to just outside Portland, Oregon.  M, was head back to San Francisco for his next leg of the trip. 

L, the student/teacher, spent the last 18 months in Japan teaching English at a university in Hiroshima.  She’s doesn’t want to teach anymore and her time at the US college seems to be up.  She’s at that next stage and the ever worrisome place of “what do I do now?”  Her Japanese is great—as it should be from living immersed in Japan for so long and having a BA in the language.  Her English was without expression for the most part, while her Japanese was very expressive.  L came to life speaking in that other language.  Without knowing what she said, I could understand her emotions.  She did not come across as drool, as is easily the case with her English.  L isn’t drool, just has the tendency to sound like it.

Much of the seven hours after the quake was spent waiting to hear what would happen with us.  Were we to get on a flight out?  Were we to go to a hotel to get a flight tomorrow?  Would we be allowed to leave the airport? Or would we camp the night in the airport.  I suspect K and M spent the night in the airport.  I hope they got on their flight out.

We’d had access to the internet via my iPhone and then the wi-fi signal we were able to get from the building while sitting in the bus.  We updated Facebook to make sure families wouldn’t worry and to make arrangements for our changing situation.

36 people dead according to the internet.  250 miles Northeast of Tokyo.  Sendai had been swamped.  Tsunami warnings all the way to Hawaii.  Iwakuni was having alarms and Jessica was okay.

At hour 6 after the quake we were given water, candy and Ritz crackers.  And the United flights were tallied up.  That was probably the biggest hope for everyone on the bus I was on.  Everyone on my bus had been in the United/ANA/Continental area of the airport, so we were getting itchy hearing that a representative wanted to know what flights we were on.  The plane I was on had been sitting at the gate preparing to load passengers and luggage when the quake hit. 

It turned out that almost half the bus was going to DC, including L and Tech, an 18 yr old female Chinese student attending Virginia Tech.  When the Asian man sitting next to me heard that I was going to Virginia as well, he asked that I make sure Tech got to Virginia Tech safely.  He understood I couldn’t get her to Tech, but I could make sure that she met up with her friend in Virginia.  I assume that he is a friend of the family or a caring countryman of the girl, but not her father.  She told me that this is the first time she is traveling alone and the first time to Narita ever. 

48 people dead.  Tsunami warnings for Oki and most of the Pacific coast of the US.  Hawaii could expect the wave at around 3am Hawaii time.  13 foot wave!

At about hour 7, I noticed movement.  People were getting up and moving around inside the limited area inside the building considered safe and the other buses.  Reps ran out to some of the other buses and people started moving to another set of buses and loading up.  Two full buses left towards where my plane was.  Hope! 

Finally, someone came to my bus. 

“Please be my flight!  Please!  Please!”  Everybody’s thought.  “Just let it be my flight.”

“Everyone on United flight 898 to Washington DC, please come with me.”

“BINGO!”  I won!  I think.

It wasn’t until we were standing in another line waiting to get another bus that I thought to ask L “Did he say we were getting on the plane?”

“I think so.  I think he said that,” L responded. 

I hoped she was right, but I didn’t recall the rep saying anything about a plane.  I couldn’t see any other reason for separating the passengers from that United flight.  But I’m not in control of the situation.  What is common sense for me is not always common sense for others.

My Marine leadership training has been kicking in the entire time.  “Keep your troops informed.”  It eases fear and keeps the troops calm—er.  I hate not knowing what is going on.  As a leader, even in an office, I try to keep my Marines informed of the situation and updates and changes.  That wasn’t the case here.  Granted, I know the situation was developing and plenty of the real decisions were being made about the airport by important people Not at the airport—and if the Reps didn’t know, it is because they weren’t told.

I frantically sent a Facebook message and email to Jessica asking her to call my hotel and let them know I’d be checking in late…maybe.  I figured if I wasn’t getting on a plane right now, then I’d be able to call myself when I got to wherever I was going.

I think my final Facebook post was: getting on the plane now.  We barely got off the ground in time.  We had mere minutes before the pilots absolutely had to take their federally mandated, unwaiveable break.  If the pilots took their break, we weren’t leaving the ground that night.  Once the hatch shut and the last passenger parked her rump, the pilots got us rolling while the aircrew efficiently explained our safety and emergency procedures.  We made it.  Barely.  The last United flight out of Narita and the only United Flight out after the quake.
Yes, there was spontaneous applause when we made it off the ground.

Right now, 29 hours after the quake, the death toll estimate is at 1000 people.  A good friend is still waiting to hear from her family in Sendai.  My family and friends have checked in with me.  Iwakuni saw a 5 inch “tsunami.”  Hawaii felt barely anything.  Nuclear power plants have had radiation leaks in the region.  The Quake is the 5th most powerful on record.  And I made it out on the last flight before Narita was shut down indefinitely—for the night.
I feel extremely lucky and fortunate.