A Former War Correspondent Experiences Frightening Vacation Fun
After the Iraq War I gave up on being what's known in the trade as a "shithole specialist." I was too old to be scared stiff and too stiff to sleep on the ground. I'd been writing about overseas troubles of one kind or another for twenty-one years, in forty-some countries, none of them the nice ones. I had a happy marriage and cute kids. There wasn't much happy or cute about Iraq.
Michael Kelly, my boss at The Atlantic, and I had gone to cover the war, he as an "imbed" with the Third Infantry Division, I as a "unilateral." We thought, once ground operations began, I'd have the same freedom to pester the locals that he and I had had during the Gulf War a dozen years before. The last time I saw Mike he said, "I'm going to be stuck with the 111th Latrine Cleaning Battalion while you're driving your rental car through liberated Iraq, drinking Rumsfeld Beer and judging wet abeyya contests." Instead I wound up trapped in Kuwait, bored and useless, and Mike went with the front line to Baghdad, where he was killed during the assault on the airport. Mike had a happy marriage, too, and cute kids the same ages as mine. I called my wife, Tina, and told her that Mike was dead and I was going to Baghdad to take his place. Tina cried about Mike and his widow and his children. But Tina is the daughter of an FBI agent. Until she was fourteen she thought all men carried guns to work. She said, "All right, if you think it's important to go."
It wasn't important. And that was that for war correspondence. I decided to write about pleasant places. Fortunately, my previous assignments — Lebanon, the West Bank, the Soviet Union, apartheid-era South Africa, the jungles of the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Pakistan's Northwest Frontier, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc. — set a low bar for pleasant. Unfortunately I had no experience with pleasure travel. I'd always been where people were shooting each other or wanting to shoot each other or — in the case of my side job as a car journalist — trying to die in horrible wrecks. How, I wondered, does one undertake enjoyably going somewhere enjoyable?
Apparently there are rules about traveling for fun. The ﬁrst rule is to ﬁnd the most crowded airplane on an airline that regards its customers as self-loading freight. Bonus points if the cabin crew is jocular about this. Nothing but lukewarm diet soda is to be served and that only on flights longer than three hours in duration. Passengers must be very fat, hold babies on their laps, and make certain the infants are suffering from painful ear infections. Passengers should also bring everything they own onto the plane in wheelie bags and ram these into my knee as they go down the aisle. This luggage is to be dropped on my head after it fails to ﬁt into the overhead bins, then crammed into the under-seat space in front of my feet. Everyone, please be sure to insist on having a conversation if I'm trying to read and also sneeze and cough frequently, get up to go to the toilet every ﬁve minutes if you're in the window seat in my row, or kick the seat back rhythmically for hours if you're in the row behind. And no matter what your age or the climate at your destination you must dress as if you're a nine-year-old headed for summer camp. Apparently shorts and T-shirts are what one wears when one is having fun. I don't seem to own any fun outﬁts. I travel in a coat and tie. This is useful in negotiating customs and visa formalities, police barricades, army checkpoints, and rebel roadblocks. "Halt!" say border patrols, policemen, soldiers, and guerrilla fighters in a variety of angry-sounding languages.
I say, "Observe that I am importantly wearing a jacket and tie."
"We are courteously allowing you to proceed now," they reply.
This doesn't work worth a damn with the TSA.
Then there's the problem of writing about travel fun, or fun of any kind. Nothing has greater potential to annoy a reader than a writer recounting what fun he's had. Personally — and I'm sure I'm not alone in this — I have little tolerance for fun when other people are having it. It's worse than pornography and almost as bad as watching the Food Channel. Yet in this manuscript I see that, as a writer, I'm annoying my reader self from the first chapter until the last sentence. I hope at least I'm being crabby about it. Writers of travelogues are most entertaining when — to the infinite amusement of readers — they have bad things happen to them. I'm afraid the best I can do here is have a bad attitude.
That's not hard for me. What is this thing called fun? To judge by traveling with my wife and daughters it has something to do with shopping for clothes. But I already have clothes; otherwise I'd be standing there in Harrod's naked. Or maybe it has to do with eating in fancy restaurants. I like a good meal and often, in the midst of one, I'll begin to reminisce about dining on raw lamb brains in Peshawar, and suddenly nobody's eating. There is the romantic side of a romantic getaway to be considered. Mrs. O. got quite snuggly on a moonlit night in Venice in the back of one of those beautiful teak motoscafo water taxis, speeding from the Piazza San Marco to Lido beach. Speaking for myself, however, I'd just as soon be home in bed without the lagoon sewage spray and the boat driver sneaking peeks. And a kid's idea of fun is a frightening amusement park ride. I'm a professional coward. I make my living by being terriﬁed. I shouldn't pay somebody when I get on Space Mountain; somebody should pay me when I get off.
Excerpted from Holidays in Heck. Copyright 2011 by P.J. O'Rourke; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc.