So what exactly was I thinking?

April 13, 2006

So what exactly is Jim Harris thinking? He’s working with a bomb disposal unit? Sounds like someone we know is having a mid-life crisis. Detractors might suggest the wheel is spinning but the hamster has obviously died.

No. No midlife crisis here. In the first place, I’m too old to have a mid-life crisis. They happen somewhere about, well… midlife. I’m an expert on mid-life crisis because I had one when I was in my early 40’s. It was an appropriately-timed, mid-life event that occurred when I had the prospect of living well into my 80’s. That nasty little sucker led me into seven years of sheep farming, the details of which are completely irrelevant here.

Anyone dismissing my current adventure as a mid-life crisis would have to credit me with having far more years ahead of me than my insurance underwriter thinks is probable. Without getting too specific, let’s just say that the smart money is betting that, bombs or no bombs, I’ll never see my 117th birthday.

The chain of events that got me here, in Laos, working for a bomb disposal company started one Sunday morning at Wausau’s English Lutheran Church. I was invited to speak to a group within that congregation that was interested in the problem of unexploded ordnance, or “UXO.”. I showed videos. I lectured. I even displayed a real-life example of the infamous bomblet that the Lao people call the “bombie.” I am certain that I drove home the point that left-over ordnance in Laos has claimed 20,000 victims over the past thirty years.

Someone in the audience praised me for documenting the problem. He thanked me for raising the consciousness of the good English Lutherans who were present. Then, he added that he found it worrisome that so many others throughout our community remained unaware of the problem. I am certain that he intended his comment as encouragement. I took his words to mean that I should continue meeting with schools, churches, civic groups and others to raise “consciousness” to even greater heights.

However, as I reflected upon his comment in the days that followed, I was saddened by the realization that no matter how hard I worked at raising consciousness my efforts would not reduce the bomb contamination in Laos. Not by one bomb. Not by one landmine. A large group of people possessing a high level of consciousness accomplishes no more than a small group of people who have a low level of consciousness. Not until somebody in the enlightened group decides to stop talking and actually take action.

So what exactly is Jim Harris thinking? I’m not having a midlife crisis. No mental malfunction. I simply decided to stop talking and take action.

My opportunity to get into the UXO-thick-of-things here in Laos fell into my lap at the beginning of February. A friendship forged over five previous trips to Laos resulted in me being asked to manage a camp of clearance workers who are relocating villagers displaced by the creation of a reservoir. That was February. Six weeks later, here I am, an employee of Phoenix Clearance Limited. I’m managing Work camp 1, Nakai District, Khammouan Province, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Believe it or not, I still have the same wife of 35 years and my children have not sought a competency hearing.

Am handling ordnance and dismantling bombs? Get real! Anyone who has ever seen me try to start my lawnmower knows that I have no mechanical skills to bring to the task of defusing bombs. In the great battle between good and evil, I am not a spear thrower. I am not even the guy who carries the spear and hands it to the spear thrower. I am the guy who carries the lunch for the guy who carries the spear for the guy who throws the spear in the great battle between good and evil. It’s not a very glamorous job but I perform essential tasks that permit our teams to clear land, remove bombs and save lives. End of story.

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