Max and the typhoon - Part I and II

Typhoon Max

This was my first published story. Okay: so far, this has been pretty much my *only* published story. But let that bide. It's a true story, mostly. Happened when I lived on Saipan, in the Marianas Islands. That was from 1991 to 1998. The typhoon was in, hmm, must have been early '97. I posted the story on the Lois Bujold mailing list, and someone passed it along to a woman who edited a magazine, and I ended up getting some money for it. The money was very nice, but the main thing is... I miss Max. Still. Anyway. Someone just asked about it. I didn't keep a copy, but now that we have internet, I was able to find it quickly enough. So here it is.

I think I've mentioned that I have a couple of cats.

Momo, the female, is small, calico, and very clever. Max, who used to be male, is fat, affectionate, lazy, cowardly, and -- there is no polite way to put this -- somewhat less than brilliant. Amiable dimwit is how I usually describe him. Feline moron if I'm feeling cranky.

When Max was a kitten, it took him a long, long time to get housebroken. He couldn't figure out litter boxes, and couldn't distinguish between indoors and out... well, I *said* he was stupid. In order to get the idea across, I eventually had to be kind of severe with him (and no, I don't like being severe with animals, especially with cats, upon whom it's usually wasted). He never did figure out litter boxes, but one day the light bulb went on over his little brain -- ping! -- that's what OUTSIDE is for. Ohhh.

When he finally did get it right, though, he became very diligent about it. He'd go outside and make a huge production of digging a DEEP hole, throwing dirt for yards in every direction. Then he'd dig a second hole, more slowly and carefully, to get dirt to fill the first one... yes, really. Not so bright, remember? This raised some additional problems, of course. Visitors began saying things like, "Doug, what the hell happened to your lawn?" But after another year or two of mostly gentle persuasion, I was able to convince him to restrict his sanitary functions to a few select areas outside the public view -- behind the flower bed, up in the little patch of jungle north of the house, and across the street in the junk yard, where he could dig and bury to his heart's content.

Now, Max and Momo are boonie cats, distant descendants of sailor's felines brought by the Spanish galleons. For a hundred generations, their ancestors ran feral in Saipan's forests, living on rats and lizards and native birds, before people got around to re-domesticating them. So they've got the instincts of tropical animals, and they know all about typhoons. The falling barometer affected their behavior pretty obviously.

Momo, normally the most independent of creatures, began hovering ever closer to me, drifting along at my heels as I moved from room to room. Max, on the other hand, went into the laundry hamper. As the storm moved closer, he dug himself ever deeper down into the sheets and towels and dirty underwear.

By the time the first big winds hit, he had been down there for twelve hours or so. So. Fast forward to ten or so on Saturday morning. The eye of the storm was an hour away from its closest passage. Winds outside were sustained at something over a hundred miles per hour, with gusts up to one-forty or so. W ind noise so loud that conversation had to be shouted. Rain intermittent, blindingly thick one moment, clear the next. Boiling sky above, split by lightning every few seconds, and the occasional piece of random debris flying past -- branches, coconuts, pieces of corrugated tin, the hard plastic liner from the back of someone's pickup truck. I had all the windows boarded on two sides of the house, but not on the lee side -- we knew that the winds would come mostly from the south and west, and I wanted to be able to see out. So I was standing on the east side of my living room, ankle deep in warm water (leaky house, tile floor), and looking out over the small lake that had taken over my side yard, when I heard a plaintive little yowl.

A familiar plaintive little yowl. It was the sound that Max used to make before I installed the cat door, when he desperately needed to go outside.


"Mrrowl." I have to go outside.

"Max, you must be kidding me. We're having a typhoon."


"Max, we're in the MIDDLE of a typhoon. It's a hundred miles an hour out there."

"Mrrooooooowl!!" I REALLY have to go outside. I've been in that laundry basket since yesterday.

"Max... uh, oh shit."

"Mrwl." Yes, exactly.

"Oh, oh gosh. Well... let's take a look."

I probably should describe the layout of my house at this point. It's one story, long and skinny from north to south. The south end faces the road across a small front yard. On the west there's a long skinny patch of lawn and then a very overgrown and scruffly flower garden. The north end has no windows, and there's a little patch of jungle behind it, presided over by a hundred-year-old breadfruit tree. To the east there's a big, low yard, which at this point was now a small lake, maybe two hundred feet by fifty, and nearly a foot deep. The front door opens out of the kitchen onto the driveway, to the south. There's a door to the west that opens on nothing in particular.

So anyway, Max waddled over to the western door, picking his way across the wet tile floor, and looked up at me and mrowled again.

I shook my head, but he just kept looking at me, so I grabbed the knob and shoved *hard* against the door. It wouldn't budge at first -- the wind was coming out of the southwest, hitting it almost square on -- but I waited until it subsided for a moment, then slammed my shoulder against it and jammed my foot in before the wind could knock it shut.

Outside, the storm had laid the grass flat. The palm trees were bent into U-shapes, heads touching the ground. The rain had almost stopped for the moment, but the few stray drops were like BB pellets. And the force of the wind was such that I, 190 pound human, had to put my head down and lean far forward and brace myself just to look out the door.

"No, Max, I really don't think --"

But he was already hopping over my foot and out the open door.

"Hey, what? Max!"

He made a beeline for his favorite spot, the scruffy weedy little garden to the west of my house, across the little lawn. That western strip of lawn slopes a little upwards. I had never really noticed this before, but now I could see it clearly. Because, you see, the slope meant that the lawn immediately adjacent to the house was sheltered, just a little, at least down at cat-level, a foot or so off the ground. So Max got out the door okay. But once he moved a few feet away from the house, and started to ascend that little slope, the full force of the wind caught him head on.

He slowed. He slowed to a crawl, and then to a creep. But he didn't stop. He flattened himself against the ground and, as I watched in amazement and growing awe, began to *squirm* forward across the wet grass.

The wind was solid, smooth and glassy, palpable. The farther he moved from the house, the worse it got. From the door I could see the fat on his flanks and buttocks begin to ripple, and then to flutter. When he turned his head, I could see his jowls were pushed back against his shoulders, and his lips were flared into a rictus, like the face of an astronaut in a jet-sled. But he kept going. His claws were out and he was pulling himself forward like a mountaineer using pitons to traverse a wall of ice. Bit by bit, inch by inch, he crept forward to within a couple of feet of the far edge of the lawn. And there he stopped.

The ground rose to a little ridge there. It was only a foot or two in elevation, but it concentrated the air flowing over it, and the wind speed was at its very highest just there. And no matter how hard Max tried, pulling with his front legs, kicking with his back, he couldn't cross those last few feet. His claws just could not get enough purchase on the slick wet grass. Again and again, he stormed that little ridge in slow motion, squirming forward into the howling river of air, clawing and kicking against the invisible power of the gale. And again and again, he would just reach the top, only to lose his grip and be forced backwards by the wind, claws digging furrows in the wet dirt.

He tried tacking, zigzagging against the wind's direct path, but that was even worse: it turned his fat flanks broadside to the storm, and he lost ground even faster. At last, in frustration, he pushed himself as close to the top as he could and then gathered his back legs under him and leaped. The result was utterly predictable: the instant he left the ground, the wind just grabbed him and threw him back across the lawn, costing him all the ground that he had so laboriously gained.

"Oh, Max!" He was back inside, wet, muddy, battered. "Max, guy, are you okay? Let me get a towel."

But he was shaking himself and growling (growling? Max?) with frustration.

"Max?" He looked at me.

"Mrowl! Mrrrooooooowwl!"

"Max, I know, but no way! Forget it, guy! Listen -- I'll make you a litter box, okay? Yeah, I threw the old one away years ago, but we can rig something up -- uh, I'll get a cardboard box, shred some paper towels, that Robert Jordan novel that somebody gave me -- listen, guy, you're not going to --"

He gave me a look that stopped me cold. It was a look that I had never seen before, a look that was cool and stern and righteous. It was a look that said, as clearly as words: I know what is right even if you do not. A proper cat does not go in the house. Ever.

"Yeah, but Max, it's okay, I never meant -- Max! Hey, Max!"

He was off across the room, splashing across the wet floor, and climbing up onto the back of the couch to peer out the (un-boarded) eastern window. This was a Max I had never imagined. This was a cat who was alert, intent, focused. This was a cat filled with grim resolution. This was a cat possessed. He stared out the window for a long moment, thinking (thinking? Max?) and then, in a flash, he was down on the floor again and zipping into the kitchen.


I splashed after him, just in time to see his tail disappearing into the dryer hole. Now, the dryer hole is set several feet off the ground, in the southern front of the house, facing the driveway. The cats can use it to get outside by climbing up on the washing machine, but normally they don't, because the drop is inconvenient. It's got a little tin shutter, which the wind had blown shut (some water got in, but that hardly mattered, water was getting in everywhere). I would have nailed it shut, but who could imagine that I would need to?

How Max managed to push it open against the force of the storm will forever remain a mystery. But he did, and squeezed himself through. The wind slammed the shutter on his tail as he dropped down, and it scraped off a big tuft of hair and some skin, but he got outside. And now he was on the driveway at the south face of the house, with the wind coming straight at him. Opening the front door was even worse then the side door had been, because the front door opened inwards. Once unlatched, it wanted to fly open for good, letting the wind inside the house. I braced my feet, leaned my whole body against it, and cautiously poked my head out. The rain had started again, fat drops coming at us like bullets.

Max was a few feet to my left, squashed against the bottom of the outside wall, the wind shoving him flat against the concrete like a cop arresting a criminal. I could see him shuddering as the rain hit him. A few feet beyond him, at the corner of the house, the drain from the roof was coming down like a firehose.

"Oh, Max," I said. " Dumb idea. Dumb, dumb. Come on guy,"

I reached around the edge of the door.

"Come on back inside. Come on. Psss, pss, pss --"

But now he was moving, and not towards me, but away, towards the water spout. The water was coming down with tremendous force, the rain from thousands of square feet of roof collecting into this one spot, a gallon per second or more blasting down onto the driveway in a solid mass. Pressed flat, Max slid along the wall, closer to it, closer... and then he simply disappeared into the waterfall.

"I didn't see that." I said it out loud.

Max, my cowardly eunuch, walking into a firehose spray of water without an instant's hesitation? Max, who screamed like a skewered baby when I gave him his quarterly bath? Max?

I put my back against the front door, braced my legs, and shoved it shut. Then I skidded through the kitchen, back into the living room, and flattened my face against the eastern window. The rain was coming down in diagonal curtains, and for long moments I simply could not see anything. But then it paused, and I saw Max.

He was crossing the eastern yard... which was under nearly a foot of water. The east side was the lee of the house, partially sheltered, so the wind was not so bad.

Still, it was whipping the miniature lake into whitecaps as it gusted around the corners of the house. Max wasn't quite swimming -- his feet could just touch the ground beneath the water -- but only his head, rump, and tail were above the surface, and the waves would go right over him. Still, he forged steadily onwards, chugging along like a little ironclad. When waves broke over his head he simply closed his eyes and ducked and kept going.

Fifty feet, a hundred. He was heading north, crossing the yard the long way, moving almost parallel to the house but slightly away from it in shallow diagonal. He took a detour at one point to circle around something -- a deeper spot, or maybe some debris beneath the water -- but he never stopped moving.

At the far northern end, the water got over his head, and he had to swim. He swam.

"I'm not seeing this," I said. "I am NOT seeing this."

Swimming? Max? I could not have been more dumbfounded if he had demonstrated the ability to levitate. And where was he going? A few more yards, and he'd be out of the lee of the house, exposed to the storm again.

And then I saw it.

Beyond the north end of the yard, set up on a little bank, was the patch of jungle. Most of it was exposed to the storm, and that part was a death trap, branches whipping wildly back and forth with terrible, maiming force. But there was one calm spot: the lee of the ancient breadfruit tree.

Max never hesitated. He hit the shore, scrambled up the muddy bank, clawed his way across the stretch where the wind was angling in at full strength, and then gave a single enormous leap with the wind behind him to reach the trunk of the breadfruit tree. He hit it, clung, scrambled around it like a squirrel and he was home free, in the lee, sheltered. He backed down to the ground and slowly, methodically he began to dig.

I watched with absolute fascination. Minutes passed as he dug deeper, careful, thorough. The wind got stronger, gustier, and more random, switching direction suddenly around a quarter of the compass, southwest west southeast. The lightning flashed and the thunder boomed. Max never looked up from his digging.

More minutes passed. The wind got even stronger. Somewhere around this point, my neighbor's car port abruptly parted company with his house and took off for Taipei like a big corrugated tin pterodactyl, dropping pieces of nail-studded two-by-fours all across my lawn and roof as it headed up into the cauldron of the sky. I never noticed. I was watching my cat. And then he was ready.

With an unmistakable air of triumph, he turned away from his deep, deep hole, backed up, raised his tail, assumed the position -- -- and the wind shifted ten points around the compass, from southwest to north, and gusted, hard, hitting him broadside and blowing him away, ass over teakettle across the flooded lawn.

He went flying over it like a stone skipped across a pond, and then the wind picked him *up*, 140 mph gale lifting him like a scrap of paper, and flung him into the plumeria tree at the front of my house, ten feet off the ground.

"MAAAAAX!!" I was out the front door without a second's thought, screaming across my lawn. Of course the wind hit me like a nose tackle me once I was out on my driveway, pow, and whoof suddenly I'm on the ground looking up at the clouds going by overhead much too fast.

Pick myself up and, whoosh, suddenly the wind swings back into the southwest, and my writhing, squalling cat flies out of the tree and hits the driveway, bounces once, and throws himself on me and *clings*.

I scream, grab him, let the wind push me back across the driveway, lurching like a drunken man, in through the front door, slip and skid, the wind is coming in through the open door and I fall again and the cat flies off, slides across the wet floor, and comes to a stop in the middle of the living room floor, totally drenched, flattened, with all four limbs outstretched like a cartoon character that's been hit by a steamroller.

"M-M-M-Max," I said, wiping bloody claw scratches and rain, "you, uh, you, ah huh, ah hah, ah ha ha ha ha, ahh, hahahahahaha ---"

I couldn't help it. Shock, reaction, and, dammit, he did look pretty funny. Flat, wet, fat cat, floored, looking back at me with big wild eyes.

"Oh, Max, I, you, ah huh, oh ha ha ha," and now he was looking at me with dawning horror, cats hate nothing worse than being laughed at, "oh hoo hoo hoo, no, Max, haha, listen, hoo hoo, no, I'm sorry," but it was too late.

He gave me a look of absolute and utter outrage -- he had just very nearly died, trying to do the right and righteous thing, and I was LAUGHING at him -- and then slunk off, wet, bruised, and trembling with shock and humiliation.

He did his business behind the hot water heater in the back of the utility closet, and then he went under the bed in the spare bedroom and stayed there for the next two days. Didn't make a sound, didn't eat, didn't respond to my blandishments and apologies or to catnip or the open can of Friskies that I left there. Just stayed back by the wall, eyes wide open and gleaming back at me when I kneeled down to beg his forgiveness and ask him to come out again.

He finally came out this morning, but he's not talking to me. When I called him, he ignored me. When I tried to get near him, he gave me one of those cat looks -- you know, the ones that say, "Excuse me, sir, but I don't believe I know you. Kindly do not be so familiar." -- and then ran away without letting me touch him. And he's right. He was so brave, and I laughed at him... I feel horrible. How do you apologize to a cat? Anyone?


Typhoon Max, Part II

...So I seduced him.

Two weeks after the typhoon, the whole thing was just getting totally intolerable. I mean, he just kept looking right THROUGH me. Wouldn't let me near him, wouldn't let me touch him. Wouldn't sleep with me anymore... he'd still sleep on my bed, but only during the day when I was out. Spent his nights in the guest bedroom. Spent a lot more time than usual wandering the neighborhood, too... he actually got into a fight, his first in months (probably with his archenemy, The Evil Orange Cat). And now and then, if I tried particularly hard to attract his attention, he'd shoot me these brief looks of utter contempt... you know, like "I KNOW I'm compelled to share my living space with you, but MUST you be such a loud, tacky, vulgar, uncouth... human?"


In a proper seduction, timing is everything. Timing, and patience, and careful preparation. And knowing the weak spots of the object of your seduction.

Max has three. One is obvious as soon as you look at him: good food. He didn't reach 18 pounds plus by being finicky. Max likes eating. The second is catnip.

The third is the sweet spot where his spine makes a right angle at the base of his tail. Short-circuits his brain somehow, that does -- scratch him there for ten seconds, and he trembles, his mouth hangs open, his eyes glaze over, he starts to drool uncontrollably and make strange little percolator noises, and then, more often than not, he'll just collapse on his side, feet sticking straight out, gasping for a belly rub.

But this trick would only work after a good ten seconds of scratching -- not possible while he kept running away from me.

And he had ignored catnip and open cans of Friskies Gourmet, and was still ignoring them. But then, perhaps these were too... obvious. Perhaps some subtlety was called for. And combining the various weak spots together. So...

The first thing I did was shift cat foods. Normally I feed them three or four different kinds -- cheap dry, good dry, fancy-schmansy dry, wet -- more or less at random from day to day, to add a little variety to their lives. But now I shifted to the cheap dry and stayed with it for several days. This brought complaints at first, then an increasing tendency to leave the bowl full while either coming to head-butt and beg for something better (Momo) or becoming ever frostier and more aloof (Max). After a couple of days of this, they were both becoming distinctly peckish.

Then I went and bought some ice cream.

Step two required some patience, waiting for the right moment. It came on Friday afternoon. I got home from work and both Max and Momo were in the living room -- he in his favorite spot, sprawled magnificently across the back of the couch, she on the table curled around the CPU of the Macintosh. Perfect. I went to the fridge and made myself a bowl of ice cream. Momo came in and poured herself around my legs -- ice cream? Is that *ice* cream? Have I told you lately how much I love you, Doug? How much I love, love, love you? Well, I do love you, Doug, yes I do...

Strolling into the living room, I leaned nonchalantly against the bookshelf and began scooping Dreyers Cookies and Cream into my mouth. Momo went into a frenzy of head-butting, shoulder-rubbing, and lascivious purring. Max simply sat there. But -- I know my cat. I could see the hint of tension in his posture. He wanted to step down from his perch and walk away, slowly, ponderously, belly swaying back and forth with dignity... but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it.

"Mmmm," I said. "Good ice cream. Yes, sir." Purring and rubbing. Frosty silences. "Oh -- guess I can't quite finish it. Hmm. Momo-chan, you want some? Yes?" I carefully set the bowl down on the floor. "Oh, do you like that? Yes? Oh we LIKE that, don't we. Iiiiiice creeeeeeeam. Mmmmmmm. Goooooooood."

At this point, of course, Max DID hop down from the couch and waddle, just a little stiff-legged, towards the door. He stopped at the cat door and gave me a swift glance of utter and absolute contempt -- why *ever* did God, Who is a very large cat, create creatures as crass, boorish and generally repulsive as humans, what was He thinking -- and then squeezed himself out, tail twitching with annoyance.

Step two complete, I thought. Now for step three...

Saturday I bought some Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey, and some fresh catnip. Saturday night, no opportunities. Sunday morning, busy. But Sunday afternoon... yes. There they were again, one on the couch, the other on the CPU.

"Sorry, darling," I said to Momo as I scooped her up. "Need you to go outside for a bit," tossing her out and locking the cat door behind her. Ignoring the faint confused mewl, I went back to the freezer and took the whole pint of B&J out.

I tucked myself into the sofa chair, flicked on the TV, and began to slowly scoop spoonfuls out of the carton. History Channel... CNN... VH1... "Mmm. This is good ice cream," Fox Network... ABC... "Baywatch". "Mmm... yeah..." NBC... MTV... "Oh, look, Cheryl Crow is making a video in her underwear. And everyone else in the video is really ugly. Mmm... grunt... um... smack," Discovery channel, CBS, oh heck "Baywatch" again... "Mmmm... sluuurp..."

Across the room, Max was totally engrossed in looking out the window. Ice cream? What ice cream? I'm not interested in any ice cream. I'm so far from being interested in ice cream, that the light from it will take several hours to reach me. Really. MTV? "Baywatch"? Humans are so strange. And boring. This window, now... what an interesting view.

After ten minutes or so of slow spooning and carefully calculated slurps, grunts, and moans of pleasure, there was nothing left of the pint but a golf-ball sized lump of banana ice cream, floating in about two inches of melt at the bottom of the carton. I was ready... it was time to make my move.

Reaching into my pocket, I removed the Baggie full of fresh catnip and, turning slightly away from Max, dumped it into the carton. Three quick stirs with my finger, then I set the carton down on the table, ostentatiously stretched, and said to nobody in particular, "Go pee." Then I walked out the door into the corridor to the bedroom, hands in pockets and singing softly to myself ("This is no social crisis, this is just you having fun, noooo crisis,"), proceeded down the hall to the bathroom, where I opened the door, shut it loudly without going in, stopped singing and began to count very very quietly to myself. "Thirty. Twenty-nine... twenty-eight..."

"...two... one." I had slipped out of my flip-flops, and now I went back up the hall barefoot and on tiptoe, to peer around the door into the living room.

Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't sneak up on a cat. Sure, their ears and noses are a hundred times better than ours. Sure, they can sense vibrations through the floor and subtle movements of the air. But it doesn't matter how good your senses are if the brain behind them is distracted. And Max had his head shoved so far into the ice cream carton that he was more or less wearing it like a helmet.

And so I was able to come right up behind him and... gently, very gently... lay my hand on his back and begin to stroke.

He twitched. No, he flinched. And he thought about running, I know. But catnip works quickly, and his little brain was already beginning to effervesce. And he was just snorkeling the Ben & Jerry's, lap lap lapping up tonguefuls of melted creamy extra-rich banana ice cream. Just a few seconds, he thought. Just let me finish this off, and then I'll just... Slowly I moved my hand down his back to the spot at the base of his tail, and began to scratch.

It was close. He knew the danger. He quickly slurped up the last of the ice cream, shook the carton off his head (leaving a very fetching crown of liquid Chunky Monkey mixed with scraps of catnip all around the top of it) and took a faltering step or two away. But the catnip had weakened his will, and then the wave from the sweet spot hit his brain.

He trembled. His claws flexed and his eyes glazed over. His mouth dropped open and he began to make strange little percolator noises. He made one last shuddering attempt to gather himself and run away... and then, slowly, with immense dignity, he toppled to one side and collapsed: THUD.

"Awww, Maaax," I said softly, still scratching. I brought my other hand around, and up, and in for the kill, plunging it into the soft fur of his immense belly. "Belly rub, Max... bellllllly ruuuuuuuuub..."

Sunday night Max took the middle of the bed. And instead of wrestling him for it as I normally would, pulling the sheets from under him and shoving him to the edge, I just let him lie there, purring, and I curled myself around him like a comma, and slept peacefully and happily while my great fat cat just purred and purred, rumbling like a hidden engine of happiness through the long quiet tropical night.

Since you asked...

The Congo again

 And I'm sitting in Brussels Airport on a layover after a week back in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It was two and a half years since my last visit.  Not much seemed to have changed.  There's a new business hotel -- the Fleuve -- which is pretty nice, viz., it's actually a functioning business hotel without weird stains on the carpet or stuff falling out of the ceiling.  (Built by Chinese, and a lot of Chinese staff behind the scenes.)  What else... I guess the traffic may be a bit worse.  Otherwise, seems much the same.

I'm working with the US Department of Defense, which is interesting in its own way.  Topic for another post, maybe.  I did get to visit some interesting places!  The Congolese Ministry of Defense, for instance, which sits on a hill with a spectacular view overlooking the city and the river.  The country's main military logistics base, which was interesting if a bit depressing.  Lots of ancient machinery -- including some fascinating old machine tools from the colonial era -- and hundreds of broken vehicles, mostly trucks. 

Oh, and Mobutu's Cadillacs. Mobutu Sese Seko, who was absolute dictator of the Congo (then "Zaire") for nearly 30 years? His black stretch Caddies with the bulletproof armor.  Well, what was left of them. They're junk -- flat tires, gutted engines. Still damn impressive, though. Henry Kissinger rode in them, back in the day, and Mohammed Ali.  I guess they're still official government vehicles, and you never know when you might need a part from an old Caddy.

In my last post, I mentioned that I'd been researching US assistance to the Congo and Zaire.  There used to be US troops in Zaire!  A few hundred of them.  "Trainers".  Their mission was called ZAMISH and it lasted several years.  No lasting effect, and almost completely forgotten today.  Makes you thoughtful.

What else.  Well, munitions and ammunition are not stored very well in Congo.  That's a problem across a lot of Africa, actually.  There have been some spectacular munitions explosions in the last few years.  One of the worst took place just last year, in 2012.  It was in Brazzaville -- right across the Congo river from Kinshasa.  It was big enough that it broke windows in Kinshasa, even though the river is over half a mile wide there.  So, it's a fairly pressing issue.

(There's a theory that these blasts happen because there's a lot of pilfering at the arms depots, and when an inspector or someone gets close to the truth, someone decides to eliminate the evidence.  The Brazzaville blast killed at least 250 people, so I'd kinda like to think that wasn't true.  No way to know for sure.)

Hm, what else.  Learned a lot about Congo's state of military readiness, but I probably shouldn't talk about that.  Let's see... well, there's a big east/west divide in Congo's military right now.  (This is public knowledge.)  Mobutu didn't have a professional military -- ha ha, no -- but his Force Armee Zaire, or FAZ, had a lot of guys who had been trained in the US or Europe.  FAZ's senior generals were all kleptocrats who had no interest in anything as gauche as fighting a war, but at the middle-officer level there were a fair number of guys who were, by African standards, pretty competent.  When Kabila invaded from the east in 1997 (with Rwandan support, which is another long story in its own right), FAZ fell apart like wet tissue paper; most troops hadn't been paid in months or years, the ammunition and supplies had long since been stolen and sold on the black market, and there was no will left to fight for an utterly corrupt and discredited regime.  But that doesn't mean there was no value in FAZ; as noted above, there were some guys who were competent-ish and willing to do their jobs.  Just, not enough of them and they weren't allowed to do much.

So the east-west thing: FAZ was dominated by Lingala-speakers from western Congo.  But Kabila was coming in from the east, where he'd spent more than thirty years (!) in the bush or across the border in Uganda or Rwanda.  And in the east, they're all Swahili speakers.  So when Kabila took power, he installed Swahili speakers from his army in all the key positions. And they -- and in some cases their sons; it's been a while since 1997, after all -- are still there today.

The Swahili-speaking guys were, at best, competent guerrillas.  (At worst they were thugs.)  None had any idea how to run a modern military.  So that echelon of lower and middle level FAZ officers was kept on, because they were the ones who could actually make stuff work.  Many of them are still around today, though they're getting old.  So if you want to find (say) a professional logistician in the modern Congolese military, good chance it's some FAZ guy who has been a major for the last 20 years.  And who is going to retire soon, so someone really should be training up some new ones.

There's more to say about the Congo, but they're calling my flight to Frankfurt.  (Five and a half hour layover in Brussels airport, done.  That's the second time this year I've slept on an airport floor.)