10 Things I Learned About Cuba

January 5, 2015

During the Trip of a Lifetime…

I was fortunate to visit Cuba with my wife in November of 2014, just a few weeks before President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and a host of changes that would be coming to the island. I had always wanted to see Cuba “before things opened up” to witness the daily life of the people and see how things really were. A lot is said about Cuba in the American media, and depending on where you are from, how old you are, and where you sit on the political spectrum, American opinions about Cuba are various. I needed to see it for myself. So after securing the necessary documents we were able to spend two weeks in Cuba on a person-to-person license, basically a cultural exchange during a very agenda-heavy trip that included visits to all kinds of places and no beaches. This was not your typical Caribbean day in the sun.

Being half-Cuban, I was hoping to connect with my past and see the land of my grandparents. They came to the U.S. long before Fidel Castro was in power so they were not dissidents, or political refuges and no, they did not get here on a raft (it’s amazing how many times I’ve been asked that question). My perspective on the so-called Cuban situation is much different than someone whose family had to flee the country in the late 50’s and early 1960’s. I will try my best to keep the politics out of this and keep this focused on what I observed. After spending 11 educational days in Santiago, Havana and Matanzas I came home with a new, informed perspective on Cuba and felt fortunate to have been one of the last Americans to visit the island before things opened up. Here are 10 things I learned about Cuba.

1. Old Cars Are Everywhere

I thought the images of old cars that you see speeding along Malecon or navigating through the narrow streets of Havana were a romantic embellishment of the photographers or filmmakers who wanted to capture the spirit of Cuba, sort of like how every clichéd image of Minnesota includes shots of either lakes or snow. Minnesota has a lot of those things, just as Cuba has a lot of old cars. They were everywhere. I thought they would be only taxis but it seemed like every fourth or fifth car in Havana was a 50’s era Ford, Buick or Chevy. Even in Santiago, or on the highway between Havana and Matanzas I saw plenty of beautiful old cars with fresh, shiny paint jobs that were a joy to look at. I was stuck on a bus for most of the time though, so I never had the chance to ride in one. (click any photo to see a larger image)

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2. The Two-Currency System Can Be Tricky

Cuba has a dual-currency system. Most Cubans are paid in the peso (CUP) while tourists use the convertible peso which is locally referred to as the “kook,” officially the CUC. I won’t go into detail about the background of this system, you can read more about it here. The CUC is the more valuable currency, worth about 24 pesos. As a tourist I carried and used only CUC, until a friendly vendor at a small corner store pulled the old switcheroo on me. I bought a bottle of water for 1.75 CUC, handing him a 5 CUC bill and he gave me my change in coins – what I thought at the time was 3.25 CUC. A few hours later I went to a different shop to buy a can of cola and tried to pay the 1 CUC price but quickly learned that I was holding a handful of pesos (CUP). Instead of getting my 3.25 CUC in change, I had been handed pesos that amounted to roughly .50 CUC. Okay, so the first guy was able to scam me out of a few bucks and yes, I was able to use the pesos he handed me to buy that cola. Certainly a learning experience – one that cost about 3.25 CUC in tuition. Take a look at the photo. One of these is a CUC and one is a peso. Can you tell the difference? Other than the image and the 1$ marking, they are almost exactly the same size and weight.

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3. Capitalism Exists

See above. People were trying to make a buck everywhere. From cab drivers constantly shouting out, “¿taxi?” to the friendly street hustlers who love to fall in love with your CUC, Cuba was the most capitalist communist country I’ve ever been in. Okay, I’ve only been to this one communist country but there were numerous examples. Take bottled water. In a true planned socialist economy, shouldn’t the price of water be the same everywhere you go? In theory at least? I found that the price of water was completely market-based. A 1-liter bottle may have been 3 CUC in the hotel, 2 CUC in the small shop just down the street and only .75 CUC deep in the Cuban neighborhoods. And you were expected to tip everyone everywhere you went. Waiters and drivers, sure, I was expecting that. But when a group of dancers performs and pulls you onstage to do a little rumba the next thing you know they’re handing you their CD and asking for 5 CUC. I even had one little old lady approach me in an art gallery and lead me to the bathroom. I thought she was leading me to another exhibit but no! As she pointed me around the corner I was expecting to walk into a room of sculptures and instead found myself standing before a toilet. She waited outside until I finished, and so I gave her a tip.

4. Revolutionary Imagery Is Everywhere

I didn’t see a lot of advertisements. Not for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s (televised baseball games have no commercials so between innings, they announcers just keep talking while you watch teams switch sides – same goes for pitching changes) but I did see a lot of patriotic marketing. Photos of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were everywhere. Banners were draped from buildings with images of Vilma Espín and Frank País. Statues had been erected all over the island honoring José Martí and Antonio Maceo. Usually the images were accompanied by some kind of loyalist message such as  “Todo Por La Revolución” or “Vas Bien Fidel.”

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I saw the famous image of Che Guevara represented in 3 ways: government patriotism, tourist junk, and artwork. Here are some examples:

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5. Restaurant Food Was Just Okay

The food for the most part was inconsistent. I had some fantastic Cuban sandwiches and some ropa vieja that was made just right. The beer was cold and the mojitos were (for the most part) really good. I even had grilled lobster at a small out-of-the-way place in Havana. This restaurant was also the only place that served fresh vegetables. The rest were canned. Most meals consisted of a slab of meat (pork, chicken or beef), a pile of rice and then some kind of bland vegetable – usually from a can. Some places offered bread and plantains and everyone offered bottled water. But when your beverage choices were bottled water for 2 CUC or a cold beer for 2 CUC you might as well order a beer – I always want my CUC to go to a good cause. The coffee though – the coffee was strong.

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6. Toilet Paper is Scarce – Bring Your Own!

We brought two rolls of toilet paper, a package of tissues and a package of wipes and were glad we did! The only places that consistently had toilet paper were our various hotel rooms and those were not refilled unless the roll was nearly empty. Even the bathroom in the hotel lobby had no toilet paper. Restaurants? No toilet paper. Most didn’t even have a toilet seat. Museums, tourists locations, government buildings? Maybe, but don’t count on it. In fact, toilet paper was so hard to come by that I found myself stashing paper napkins whenever I was lucky enough to come across one.

7. There is Food on the Shelves But It’s Not Very Healthy

We had a chance to visit a grocery store in Havana that was frequented almost entirely by Cubans – I saw only a handful of curious tourists. Expecting to see empty shelves and a major food shortage, I was very surprised to see the shelves were well stocked with pasta, canned vegetables, crackers, cookies, sardines, bottled water, beer, wine, more rum than anyone could ever drink, and plenty of sugar drinks. Not the healthiest choices, but far from the widespread shortages I’ve heard about all my life. I was able to replenish my own supply of snacks and make off with a few beverages as well.

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Just down the way from the grocery store was a running store. I was very surprised to see this. They had some descent stuff, and even carried my brand of shoes. You could pick up a pair for about 40 CUC. Not a bad price!!

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8.The Country is Rich in History and Pride

I suppose you get the same thing when you visit Washington D.C. Statues of the country’s most famous leaders. Monuments erected in memory of their glory. Grave sites etched with profound saying and decorated with eternal flames. I definitely felt the pride and it was most apparent at the grave of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero. He’s basically the Cuban version of George Washington, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all rolled into one. His grave was the largest moment in the cemetery, was guarded by soldiers who changed guards during a small but impressive ceremony every half hour, and his image was splashed all over the island. Here are some shots.

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9. The Rum Was Plentiful

It felt like it was everywhere. A small street-corner cafe might sell nothing but ham sandwiches and cola but have an entire wall of rum bottles taking up half the store. At the dancing and musical performances we attended, rum was poured and shared by everyone. The mojitos were tasty and went for about 3 CUC but you could by a bottle of rum, or “ron” as it’s called on the island for about 5 CUC. Maybe more, maybe less depending on where you were. This was something I never complained about. There were cigars too but they were nearly as abundant as the rum!

People often drank it straight from a glass, and passed their glass around for others to share. At fist, I thought I was entitled only to a small sip, kind of like the wine in Catholic church, but was encouraged to quaff down as much as I wanted. When my glass was empty, a bottle was always offered by a smiling face that encouraged a refill.

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10. Cubans Know their Baseball

One afternoon I was walking through Havana wearing a Minnesota Twins hat and in the span of just a couple hours had about a half dozen men shouted out, “¡Minnesota!” or “¡Twins!” In one bar, the bartender found out our group was from America and kept asking us if we liked the Giants, who had won the World Series just a few weeks before. I insisted that no one cared about the Giants because they won the Series three times in the last five years and that the Royals were the team everyone rooted for as lovable underdogs. The bartender didn’t want to hear this but the next night I returned to his bar and found him dressed in full Giants garb. And what do you know – I just happened to be wearing my Royals hat. We both got a big laugh.

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What a journey.

When I returned home and people asked me, “How was Cuba?” I could only shake my head and give them a one word response, “Unbelievable.” They usually followed up with, “Would you go back?” Another one word response, “Absolutely.”  I would go back to Cuba. Definitely. But not yet. Not for awhile. I want to let the new diplomatic relationship with the U.S. take hold. Let things work themselves out and go back in 5, maybe 10 years to see how things have changed. To see if they have toilet paper, and better food choices and spare parts for those old cars. I worry that the U.S. will come in and ruin a culture I saw to be very pure, by building a Starbucks on every street corner and teaching the people about such capitalistic ideals as KFC and heavily-scripted reality TV. But I’m also hopeful that things will improve and that the struggle, which I saw to be very real, becomes not so much of a struggle anymore. Here’s to Cuba, here’s to the people and to an island that I love so much.

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Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Yahoo! Arts and Entertainment. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards. Connect with Mark on Twitter

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2013 Great River Ragnar Relay: My Best Running Experience Ever

August 18, 2013

And I mean that. It started early in the morning. Damn early. A 3:00am wake up followed by a quick brushing of the teeth and splashing-of-the-water-in-the-face. Becca Peterson was to pick me up at 3:30 (she was right on time) but I had a few minutes to sit on my front steps in the quiet dark, to observe the silence of my usually active neighborhood and ponder what I was about to get myself into.

1098257_763117509977_2054142135_nAs I chewed on an untoasted blueberry pop tart I thought about everything that had brought me to that point. It started last fall with a Monster Dash half marathon that I ran with Donn MacDonald and Drew Sagstetter, two coworkers who would become my Ragnar van mates. The Monster was my first half marathon and the longest distance I had ever run. Prior to that I had done a couple 5Ks and a few solo distance runs between 8 and 12 miles, but never the full 13.1. I was just happy to finish. This is around the time Donn told me about the Ragnar relay, which was a new concept to me. 200 miles, 12 runners broken into 2 vans of 6 apiece, each runner running 3 times over the course of roughly 36 hours. Little sleep, lots of sweat and camaraderie like you’ve never experienced. It wasn’t until next summer, Donn told me circa October 2012, so I’d have plenty of time to train. And it would be fun, Donn promised. An amazing experience.

Sure, I thought. It does sound like fun. And with a half-marathon under my belt I felt like I had made my bones as a runner so I was in.

10 months later, after training with a mixture of short runs, long runs, cycling, weight lifting, stretching and general mental conditioning, I felt ready to conquer three legs that would total 17 miles. But I didn’t know what to expect from my team, the course or the experience in general. Some of us barely knew each other. There were members of the team I had only met twice before – at our initial kickoff during the winter and at our pre-race dinner the night before we’d leave for the event. The 12 members of the team were a patchwork of people who worked together, went to school together, ran together, or were friends-of-friends. I had no idea, and no expectations of how we would all get along. I was just going along for the ride with great curiosity, but little expectation of where it all would go.

At 3:30 Becca rolled up and we packed my gear in the backseat: a sleeping bag and pillow, a cooler filled with ice, Gatorade and protein drinks, and my backpack which contained enough clothes for 3 days. 3 running outfits, two pairs of shoes, a few extra T-shirts, socks, towel, pocketknife, toothbrush, magazines and anything you’d need for a 36+ hour journey into the unknown.

An hour later at the Edina Target, our van was assembled and off we went. We drove for a couple hours and as the sun slowly broke over the horizon, and after we stopped for some coffee and snacks, we reached the starting line in Winona, MN on the bank of the Mississippi River. Our spirits were high and though we grumbled that our teammates in Van #2 likely weren’t even awake, we were glad to be at the starting line knowing our van would have the fortunate experience of seeing the race from start to finish.

We wandered along the levee and mingled with other teams as our start time approached. Exact times are fuzzy to me as I quickly lost sense of what time it was and where we were. I was focused on how long I had until my leg, what I needed to consume calorie-wise, what I’d need to wear and how I would hydrate and recover. Once Christine kicked off the race and took off running towards the bridge that connected Minnesota and Wisconsin, the clock was running and it became real. I was the next runner and had only minutes to meet Christine at the first exchange point.

552643_763117939117_769711236_nPart of the fun was cheering for and supporting your team during their leg. We drove ahead of Christine, parked and jumped out of the fan to cheer, yell and play songs through our megaphone as she passed. We’d cheer for other runners too….these were honest and good-natured at first but over the course of 200+ miles when we’d cheer for other runners we’d be, well not exactly 100% supportive. Sure, we clapped and cheered and played music for them but we made sure we’d keep ourselves entertained as well. More on that later.

So after stopping a few times to wave and cheer for Christine we reached the first exchange point. I had my uniform on: green shirt, shorts, my good running shoes, black bandana. I had a small water bottle and a pair of Jolly Ranchers in my pocket. I set my iPod to my 50’s rock & roll mix. Fast, upbeat songs that set the perfect pace for my usual 10:30 mile (yeah I know, not fast). Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. Stuff that makes me run with a lot of energy.

I was nervous. I had to pee more than I felt I should have, and I was jumping about anxiously knowing that my exact start time was not up to me. I could not wait to go running until I felt right, or until the weather was perfect, or until I was fully stretched and warmed up. As soon as Christine appeared on the road I’d be in the exchange point whether I was ready or not.

1176230_763118318357_2024243755_nAnd just minutes before Christine came jogging over the horizon a funny thing happened: a lady who I had never met before and who I did not recognize came up to me and said “You’re a [name of my company] guy.” During any race like this, or any gathering of people, I usually always know or recognize someone. I’ve spent more than 20 years of my life in the Twin Cities and I’ve met enough people through work, school and social events to pretty much guarantee that anywhere I go where there’s a large crowd, I see someone I know. But I did not know this person. She knew where I worked, but I had never seen her before in my life.

So I challenged her. “Why do you think that? I’m not wearing a [company color] badge. I’m not wearing a sensible button-down shirt….”

She came back quickly. “You were a finance guy.”

Somewhat true. I had worked on a long, high-profile project that supported my company’s division. I had a lot of face time during that project so the fact that this person recognized me, even though I did not recognize her was not much of a surprise.

“How do you know this? Who are you?” I stepped closer to get a good look at her face. But she was wearing sunglasses and running gear, not the typical outfit you’d see in the halls of corporate America. I thought that maybe I just didn’t recognize her in her civilian attire. But when she told me her name, I knew I had never met her before.

“How do you know me?””

“You worked with my sister,” she nodded confidently. “I know ALL about you. You went to [Name of my high school].”

Also true and very specific. Not many people at work know where I went to high school. I don’t recall ever telling anyone on that finance project where I went to high school. How the hell did she know that? She told me her sister’s name but it was a name that wasn’t familiar. It was mysterious and I was left never placing who this person was or how our lives intersected but at least I was notorious to someone. So I left it at that. But if you know this person, or if you are this person drop me a line so we can get this sorted out.

Back to the race. A few minutes after this strange encounter I was between the ropes at the first exchange and Christine 1157579_10202165575165212_1607142899_ncame speeding in with the Ragnar slap-bracelet in hand. I held out my arm and as I felt the bracelet coil around my wrist I turned to the course and broke into an energetic jog as “Long Tall Sally” blared in my eardrums. Right out of Predator.

It took a good two miles until I was warmed up, until my breathing was synched with my pace, my mind clear and my muscles  coordinated. Already it was unlike any race I had ever run. There was no mob of runners surrounding me. The rowdy crowd of the Monster Dash or cheering spectators of the Torchlight 5k were absent. It was just me, a handful of runners and a long stretch of highway. And when I say highway I’m talking about semi trucks speeding towards you at 60 miles per hour, their wind blowing against your body as they pass, the fumes and heat of their engines reminding you that just one accidental half-inch turn of their steering wheel can instantly reset your timer and knock you into Ragnar history.

Can’t have that. You can only hope the drivers see you because it’s a bright sunny morning and there are plenty of runners on course. Drivers know there’s a race going on and they’re being mindful. A few even honked and waved as they passed. That was encouraging. Even more encouraging was when my Ragnar van passed me on the highway, the horn honking, their screams and cheers rooting for me as they sped by. I pointed my water bottle towards them and fired off a stream of liquid, spotting the van with water and making Donn, the driver laugh as he sped away. A mile or so later I caught up to my van, now parked on the opposite side of the road with my five teammates standing outside playing music through the megaphone, shouting and clapping. I did a funny run for a few strides, like a football player waltzing into the end zone before I continued with my standard home run  trot.

It was hot and my water bottle was nearly empty so I was happy to make it to the first water station around 3 miles in. This leg was 6.2, pretty much a solo 10k and now that I was warmed up, I was feeling good. The rest of the run was fairly easy. Though I only had 5 hours sleep the night before, adrenaline and the excitement of the race, coupled with the time I knew I needed to meet meant I had no problem finishing the last 3 miles.

972168_763119206577_1355602844_nAs I approached the next exchange point, the target marked by a lane of neon orange ropes (more on neon later) and a group of cheering participants and their vans, I pulled the slap bracelet from my wrist, found our third runner, Becca in the lane and slowed my pace slightly so that I would not run her over. I transferred the bracelet to her arm and she took off towards the highway. I was catching my breath and don’t remember who walked with me as we crossed the street to our van. Don’t remember who handed me a Gatorade (I think it was Drew). Don’t remember what I said to my team. What I do remember are their smiling faces, their congratulations, the happiness I felt in seeing all of them greeting me at the finish. I thought back to the last experience I had on an actual team sport. Not beer-league softball or pickup games of playground basketball but actual organized sports teams. High-school baseball, downhill alpine racing, 8th grade basketball.  Ragnar. I remember the Gatorade and the accolades and the pats on the back, sure but what I remember most about finishing that first leg was a feeling.  The feeling that I was part of a team. A good team.

On a side note: I do remember the rusty nut and bolt that Christine handed me as an inside joke. I still have it and plan to keep the treasure along with my Ragnar medal. It’s one of those things that anyone who wasn’t part of the joke would understand. A symbol of the race, a tangible piece of camaraderie. A trinket that when unearthed ten years from now will make me smile, nod my head and say “Ah yes… Ragnar.”  A rusted piece of junk discarded and lost in the dirt years ago but discovered and picked up by one of my teammates during my leg and presented to me as a validation of our bond. A Ragnar heirloom that, who knows, I may present back to her at Ragnar 2017, or Ragnar 2021, or Ragnar 2031 after she finishes her first leg.

1187017_639583939394857_742935875_nI needed a moment to catch my breath, to hydrate my body and to change out of my sweaty clothes but I also needed to join my van-mates in driving ahead of Becca to jump out and cheer her on. My leg was over so it was no longer about me. It was about Becca. So I hopped into the backseat of the van, sat under the AC and off we went.

Becca’s run was hot and made me glad that mine was over. There were a lot of sweaty, tired bodies on this leg of the race and by the time Becca finished and handed the bracelet to Drew, I collapsed in the shade and ate a turkey sandwich. I drank two full bottles of water and then changed out of my sweaty clothes and packed them away in a plastic bag. I was recovered. Run #1 was in the books and my role shifted to supporting my team and looking forward to meeting Van #2 some miles ahead.

We cheered Drew, gave him water, played songs on our stupid megaphone and then began to pay closer attention to the other runners. Most of these people were in shape and when I say in shape I’m talking about great shape. Lean, muscular bodies clad in athletic gear with every type of running accessory you can imagine. Utility belts with three or four water bottles, compression socks around their legs, heart monitors, sports bras, booty pants, neon. Neon. Neon, and more neon.

Let me talk to you about neon. This is the fad of our day and it was never more concentrated than at the 2013 Ragnar. Entire teams clad in matching neon uniforms. Neon bracelets used to track your kills. A kill is when you pass a runner on the course and some teams keep track of these by awarding a bracelet for every kill a runner scores on the course, or by marking the side of their van the way a fighter pilot would score the enemies he has blasted from the sky.

To give you an idea of how in-shape everyone was, in 17 miles of running I scored only 4 kills. Now I’m not saying I’m an amazing athlete and was expecting to be passing everyone I could on the course. In fact, I run at a slower pace and it’s tough for me to break a 10 minute mile. But had I kept track of kills at the Monster Dash or the Grand Old Days 5k, I would have scored dozens of bracelets. Not to belittle those races but I feel that your regular 5k has a lot of casual runners. People who enjoy running and like to stay in shape but haven’t made running a lifestyle. The Ragnar was filled with lifestyle runners, and many of them are decorated in neon.

Neon shoes, neon shorts, neon socks. Heck, even my good running shoes have neon soles. Neon was everywhere. It does make for a nice contrast with tanned skin, and definitely catches the eye the way, I imagine, a shiny fishing lure reflects the sun underwater and catches the eye of a hungry walleye. So neon reduces the humble male soul to that of a wandering hungry fish who is at the mercy of his potential captor. This is the way we started to think. On limited sleep, in a van that was becoming more and more musty with each completed leg and amid a sea of runners who were detached from the reality of their jobs and home life. Delirium began to set in. We started acting loopy and comparing neon running shoes to fishing lures. It was all a game, this neon phenomenon. A trick used to capture the eye, we agreed. And we were convinced that we were correct, even though the reality is that neon is as much of a fad as bell bottoms were in the 70s, or white powdered wigs were in the 1700s. It will soon pass and years from now people will look back at their photos of Ragnar 2013 and cringe at all the fucking neon!! Can you believe people dressed like that??

1185655_10152453826376758_878080296_nThis is how we began to talk, how we began to interact. The type of banter that went on in the van. We became a subculture of a subculture. Our van was a clique among cliques and though we weren’t really competitive with other runners, we started getting to know our fellow vans at a very superficial level. Sure, we chatted with some and even recognized others as friends from work or other phases of life but for the most part we observed and commented on these other vans they way high school kids would observe other social groups.

“Did you see that lady’s abs?”

“Hell yeah, I hope I look like her when I’m her age!”

Or, “What’s with all the shirtless guys wearing short black shorts? Are they all in the same van?”

Or, “Did you see that van of women who named their team Happy Endings?”

Or, “Why is that guy carrying a blow-up doll. Does he have to run with that?”

This was our world for at least another day and we were loving every minute.

1185834_763119441107_1404438498_nSo after Drew finished his leg he handed the bracelet to Donn who had to run one bitch of a hot one on black top with little shade. At least that’s what I remember. To tell you the truth, there are many times during the Ragnar run that are blurry in my mind. Where I’m not really sure what happened or where I was sitting, what I was wearing, or how I was feeling. The first transfer from Van #1 to Van #2 is one of these times. I remember Donn commenting that his leg was one of the hardest he had ever run. I remember Meredith completing her leg with a nonchalant, no-problem attitude that seemed to give us all a boost of confidence. And I remember Meredith and Becca drinking Slush Puppies that they bought somewhere, but I don’t remember exactly where. And I do remember the beginning of an in depth hot-or-not conversation that lasted throughout the 200-mile race.

We also covered the qualifications of cougarism but since enough TV shows and movies are already covering that subject, I’ll stick to the race.

I remember using an ATM to get cash, and buying two losing $1 lottery scratch-offs. I remember cheering for other runners while we were parked at a gas station and morphing our cheers from encouraging “You look great!” to the (what we thought to be funny at the time) “You look above-average!”

But it was good natured and all in good fun and most runners were wearing headphone and listening to music and couldn’t hear what we were shouting anyway. Hey, they saw total strangers cheering for them and that’s what mattered. At least that’s what I told myself.

Somewhere during all of this Meredith handed off the bracelet to Sarah from Van #2 and Van #1’s first shift was over. Van #2 would run six runners which meant we had time to rest, eat and regroup. But we were not ready to wave “good luck!” to Van #2 and proceed on our way. We decided to linger (heh heh, linger…a Van #1 inside joke) and root for Van #2. Sarah had a tough run uphill and while most of Van #1’s first leg was on pavement Van #2 seemed to be blessed with dirt roads. And with dozens of vans and runners speeding along these dirt roads, the world became a giant dust cloud that I imagine these poor runners had to breathe as they chugged along, uphill under a hot afternoon sun. It made me feel fortune to have started so early. Sure, it sucked to wake up at 3:00am but I least I didn’t have to run in this shit!

1185987_10201618196353909_1172737559_nWe watched Sarah hand off to Molly and then meandered back to our van and went to find ourselves a meal. It wasn’t breakfast or lunch of dinner because at this point I had no concept of time, and I had lost all memory of the order of daily routines. I just knew I needed to eat. And apparently every other Van #1 in the rest of Ragnar felt the same way because every restaurant in this small town of Pepin, Wisconsin was packed. But we were lucky to find seats at the bar and small nearby table at The Pickle Factory. I had a cheeseburger with two Sprites and a glass of water with lemon. It was a glorious meal. Exactly what I needed but more important than the food was the time Van #1 got to spend together at the restaurant. We were on a break, and didn’t need to hurry to the next exchange point to pick up one of our runners. It was the first time we had been all together since the starting line. We had a chance to reflect on everything that had happened that day. It was sometime in the afternoon but I don’t know the exact hour. I think it was just before the regular dinner hour, late afternoonish, so we were probably a good 12 hours into the event.

The break at the restaurant also gave us a chance to clean up. The soap and running water in the bathroom was like an oasis in the desert and I rinsed not only my face Mollyand hands but arms and legs (and more…). It was very refreshing and I felt ready for my next leg.

I could tell at this dinner that our team was going to continue to have a great time. We had really gelled up to that point. There had been good chemistry. And as we ate our meal, that chemistry only solidified. Any tension among the group had been almost sarcastically directed at other teams. In the form of our “You look above-average!” or “I give you a 4.5!” supporting cheers and our observations that we’ve seen enough tutus to last for another 10 Ragnars, thank you very much but damn these people are in good shape! Really, they were. It was something to aspire too.

After dinner, or our meal, or whatever it was, we refilled our ice supply, filled the van with gas (I think) and headed to the next major exchange point to meet up with Van #2. This exchange point was a park by the lake populated by rows and rows of vans. People were everywhere, some were sleeping but most were socializing. We caught up with some friends who were running on other teams and had a chance to look over the other vans. The most exciting one was the actual Uncle Rico van from Napoleon Dynamite.

1014329_10201776967283584_2027020605_nSoon it would be time for Scott to finish his run, completing Van #2’s first shift and handing things off to Christine so Van #1 could begin our night running. This meant headlamps, butt lamps and reflective vests which everyone was required to wear once it got dark. We realized we hadn’t applied our Ragnar temp tattoos so we took care of that, only Drew accidentally left the plastic covering on his, coining the phrase “Polish tattoo.” We also had no cloth to apply the tattoos except for a sweaty rag from my first run which somehow ended up dangling from Christine’s fingers.

Things seemed to be moving quickly and before we knew it, Scott came bounding into the exchange point and Christine took off and disappeared into the night. Van #2 had completed their first legs and the race was back in the hands of Van #1. It was dark almost as soon as we left the exchange point and Christine had the fortune of running along a very narrow stretch of highway that was also cluttered by construction. Confusing and probably not very safe but we tried to stick with her and hop out to give our regular cheers.

Since it was dark we broke out the glow sticks (I tied two within the laces of each of my shoes). We cranked up the music in the van, turned on our headlamps and created a roving disco. It looked pretty funny from the street, as I would later learn during my night run. I had a 5+ miler coming up but the last two miles were a constant incline up a fairly steep hill. At least on paper, it looked like a beast.

After Christine handed off the bracelet, I broke into my second run. It was probably around 10 or 10:30 at night and once I ran out of the small town where the exchange took place I was in almost pitch darkness. There were no lights, no buildings, no nothing. Just miles of dark highway and a car or truck speeding by every few minutes. It was hard to feel completely safe during this leg, and I tried to stay close to the edge of the shoulder and as far from the street as I could. But beside the shoulder was a very soft track of sand or loose dirt. So if you veered too far from the road and too close to the edge of the shoulder, your foot could slip into the seam between hard road and soft ground and trip you up. This would prove to be perilous for our next runner.

I had to thank the Ragnar brass for requiring reflective vests and headlamps because they were literal lifesavers. I needed to use the headlamp to see the street otherwise I would have stumbled over obstacles or missed the street entirely. Practically the only thing guiding me was the red blinking of butt lamps from the runners just ahead of me. But the darkness ended up being to my advantage as it masked the severity of the hill I was climbing; I had no idea how steep it was or how far it stretched. I knew I was running uphill but to what degree I had no idea.

This meant I was able to finish strong and run into a great crowd that was waiting at the exchange point. This one really 1176277_10202170235201710_452962527_npumped me up and I would point to this finish as a personal high-point for the race.  I had conquered a tough hill and did it nearly within my pace but felt as if I could run another five miles. When I handed the bracelet to Becca the team apologized and said we needed to hurry to the next exchange because Becca had a short leg.

The high point of my race would quickly be followed by the low point for another. While waiting at the exchange point for Becca to cross, another runner said that a runner from team 63 had fallen on the course. We are team 63. The fallen runner was Becca. There was a moment of confusion to confirm the news and then we started walking backwards into the course, in search of our fallen runner. Drew was up next so he took off running to grab the slap-bracelet and continue the race. Minutes later I was heartbroken to see Becca walking with Donn, tears in her eyes and blood all over her leg. My first thought was that she was injured and out of the race. With all the months of preparation and training, injuring yourself out of the race would be a crushing blow and I hoped that under that blood were just a few scratches. I hoped that Becca would be able to recover quickly and complete her last leg. If not, Meredith was available to run in her place but it wouldn’t be the same to have one runner sit out. We needed to get Becca cleaned up and ready for her next leg, which would be in less than 12 hours.

She received some quick first aid but there would not be an official first aid station until the next major exchange point, 3 runners later. She’d have to hold on.

946358_763119805377_1352036285_nDrew conquered his run and then Donn took over. We were off the highway now and running through farmland and corn fields. I had completely lost track of time – the movement of the sun had been my only reference and who ever knows exactly what time the sun sets? All I knew is that my body was starting to crash and I desperately needed to lie down and stretch my legs. Even two hours of sleep would be most welcome. As we followed along with Donn and eventually Meredith, I observed Becca (who was driving) and was happy to see she remained in good spirits. The rest of the crew was getting quiet as we had been awake for nearly 24 hours.

Finally we reached the next major exchange where Becca went to the first aid tent and the rest of us went into some high school (again, I had no idea where we were) to use the bathroom and wash up. Soap and running water was very welcome and I rinsed my face, arms and legs again. I returned to the first aid tent to watch Becca wince in pain as the medic cleaned and dressed her wound – and quite a wound I was. Not deep, but big. Scratches covered half her leg below the knee and had been layered by gravel. It could have been much worse but I was happy to hear Becca felt a lot better.

At the exchange point we regrouped with Van #2, who had spent their time resting. They had slept a few hours and were just waking up when we found them. It was around 2:00am by now and I couldn’t wait for Meredith to reach the exchange point so we could retire and lay down for a few hours. When Meredith arrived and handed off to Sarah, we didn’t stick around long. Roughly forty-five minutes later we pulled into a crowded parking lot at Stillwater Junior High, unpacked our sleeping bags and gear and carried it into the school where we could sleep in one of two gyms, and even catch a shower if we so chose.

I was more concerned with sleep than cleanliness and felt an extra 30 minutes of sleep was more valuable than spending Emilythat time cleaning up. I would describe the walk into the school as the physical and emotional low point of the journey for me. I had been awake for 24 hours, my body was exhausted, my mind was pretty much already asleep and I wanted nothing more than to just lie down. Having to unpack gear and carry it across a parking lot and then through the halls of the school was a downright drag but it would be unremarkable compared to what I was about to see.

Imagine when a tornado hits a town and there is nowhere for anyone to go except the local high school gym. Imagine hundreds of people, refugees, packed into the gym with their blankets and sleeping bags, and maybe a few personal possessions. This is exactly what we saw at Stillwater Junior High except instead of homeless families they were runners. A dark gymnasium filled with hundreds of sleeping runners. Organized in rows, side by side by side, resting in silent darkness. Maybe there was  a muffled snore, or someone shifting in their sleeping bag but otherwise it was dead silent, and very eerie. My clock told me it was 2:45am.

563336_10201780736657816_1586469465_nThere were two gyms like this in the school. The first was filled to capacity and the second one had only a few spaces, so we unrolled our sleeping bags and like kids having a sleepover lied down among the rows and quickly fell asleep.

We slept for roughly 3 hours and when we awoke the gym was nearly empty. All those people had awoke, gathered their things and quietly stepped out making barely a sound. Or perhaps we were all so tired that we slept through the noise of two hundred people leaving a crowded gym but I like to think or fellow runners were as respectful as we were when we entered, and moved about as quietly as possible.

When I woke up I asked how much time we had only to learn that we needed to move. We had less than an hour to get to the next exchange point and Van #2 was breezing through their night runs. After a quick visit to the head, I slammed a cup of coffee being handed out to all runners outside the gym, brushed my teeth and met up with my team at our van. I was happy to be runner #2 in our van and let someone else run the tough early morning run on 3 hours sleep. I would have a few extra minutes to wake up, eat something and stretch out.

I hardly remember the hand off from Scott to Christine, or seeing any of the Van #2 runners at the exchange point. I was barely awake but by the time we reached the next exchange, and I was dressed in a fresh set of clothes, or uniform as I called it, I felt ready for my final 5.5 miler. But I had questions…. would my body hold up for this last leg or would it quit on me halfway through? Would Becca be able to finish her third leg? How would the others feel during their third legs? Would we all crash or had 3 hours sleep been enough?

One thing we kept saying was that we couldn’t believe what little amount of time had actually passed. We had been together for roughly 28 hours. Christine’s opening run at the starting line the day before seemed like 2 days ago. Our meeting at the Edina Target late in the night seemed like 3 or 4 days ago and the pizza dinner the night before the race began was a distant memory. Weeks in the past. The reality was that it had been only 36 hours since that pizza dinner. Yet it was among the most distant of my many memories.

My third run was fairly easy. The weather was perfect and the terrain was fairly flat. It was another highway run so I had to be careful of oncoming traffic but I had a nice little trail run at one point and during the last two miles I had enough energy left in the tank to go all out. The final run of my final leg was actually my fastest mile of the 17 I had run during the Ragnar. I literally ran that mile as if it were my last.

When I finished I was cheerful, I was happy, I was satisfied. And handing the bracelet to a somewhat rested and hardly repaired Becca was inspiring. With that nasty wound on her leg there she was waiting at the exchange point for the handoff so she could run her final leg. That’s the true definition of playing while injured. We were all so proud of her!

1001399_10152455570796758_1847720542_nBecca finished her leg and said it was painful but she finished anyway! and Drew’s took us into Afton Alps. It was getting warmer now and the sun was bright and high in the sky. Donn was going to have some tough hills on the way out of Afton and then a long stretch of farmland style roads. A long, straight stretch with no shade and lots of challenging hills. We stopped a few times to give him water and even aid runners from other vans, most who appreciated our efforts. I say most because there was one guy who refused our water three times, even though he carried none and was clearly in need of a refresh. We practically insisted he take some water and he finally agreed to a very tiny pour on the back of his neck and god forbid, don’t get any on his hair.

We got smart with a few of these runners and tried to charge them 50 cents for the water but they knew we were kidding. As we departed from our impromptu water stand we patted ourselves on the back for doing a good deed and then admitted we only gave out water to make ourselves feels better, and no to make sure runners didn’t pass out. In the end, it was all about us. This is how you think when you’re sleep deprived and exhausted. We were not living in a rational world.

A fun thing happened at the next exchange point. While waiting for Donn and carrying around the ice cold 32 oz Gatorade he would need once his leg was complete, we met a tiny kitten who was running throughout the parking lot at top speed. Ducking under vans, jumping into vans and just scurrying about with the most excited attitude I’ve seen in a kitten. And he looked almost exactly like Flash, a 7 month old cat we had in our family until he got sadly sick and had to be put to sleep.

Meredith was able to catch him so I could take a few pictures to show my family back home (back home, it sounded so far 9360_10201782633505236_1314409343_naway at the time)…She let the cat go and he kept running around and ran right to the exchange point, finally resting right between the orange ropes where the runners would soon arrive. To the derision of the 30 or so spectators a runner in a rainbow tutu picked up the little guy and threw him off the course. And I mean threw. She did not pick him up and gently set him aside, she tossed him into the grass like you toss a dirty shirt into the laundry.

The crowd witnessed this and reacted with almost universal scorn. “Hey!” “Come on!” and gasps of horror arose from the people but tutu lady turned to us and said, “He landed on his feet!” as if we were in the wrong for calling her out. A minute later tutu lady was nowhere to be found. I don’t know if that’s because she was the next runner or if she hid in her van but I never saw her again. However, the cat was picked up by a friendly lady who said she would give him a home if he had no other place to go. All was well in the world of stray cats.

1146698_763119765457_843607026_nSoon Donn rounded the corner and handed off to Meredith for our van’s final leg. He slammed his Gatorade and we jumped into the van and headed to Park high school where we met Van #2 for the final exchange and the end of our shift. Another major exchange point so vans were everywhere. We were also able to catch up to some of our volunteers – Donn’s wife and Christine’s husband were there helping out at the booths. It was good to see them and I wish we had more time to chat but with Meredith coming through for the final exchange and our teammates from Van #2 hanging around I wanted to get as much team time as I could.

Meredith finished her leg, told us about her skinny kill (when you pass a runner who appears to be more fit than you are – a nice way of saying it) and then we cleaned out the van. All garbage was removed. Our clothes and possessions were organized and then we had the sad act of returning to that original Target parking lot in Edina to get in our cars, drive to a restaurant for another meal before heading to the finish line to meet Van #2.

The Target parking lot was surreal. People were shopping. People were engaged in their routines. This world seemed to have order to it. A mundane sense of tasks and to-do lists. A world of people naïve to what we were going through. Since our team’s theme was Running Back to the Future, I imagined it was how Marty felt when he returned to 1985 and met up with his family, who was completely unaware of what he had just been through. Reality for them had never changed, while Marty had returned from a life-altering quest.

That’s how I felt: life-altered. Not so much enlightened but feeling as though I had been through something that few people could completely understand. I could tell people about what I did and show them pictures and videos but would anyone every really get it? It was in that Target parking lot where I realized that the Ragnar people are like a family. We belong to a world that many people are not a part of, and would chose to never be part of! We’re crazies, weirdoes, fools who spend money to torture our bodies and minds and then return with nothing but a medal and a T-shirt. To an outsider I can understand why it may appear that way, but having gone through it, I now understand. Ragnar fundamentally changed who I am as a runner and as an athlete.

1170743_10202171572195134_1569983632_nBut it was not over yet. We still had not crossed the finish line. After breakfast at the Pancake House (breakfast at around 3:00pm) we headed to the U of M and for the first time, 203 miles later, encountered the finish line. It was a glorious sight. The end of an epic journey. White tents, music blaring, runners wandering about. The inflatable orange threshold above the finish line was our Sea of Tranquility. We were there, man. We made it! And in just a little while the final runner, Scott would come speeding into view and then we’d all run through the finish line as a team.

But first we needed to fuck with more runners.

That megaphone came in handy again and as each runner came by and gathered their team for a final 12-person sprint to the finish we took turns shouting out things like “Looking mediocre at best!”, “Squeeze those cheeks!” and “Your fly is open!” To a team of women dressed as brides, we asked if they really should be wearing white even though, as I shouted “They look like virgins to me!” To a team dressed like pimps and whores we asked where they purchased their outfits and one flashed us her purple panties. For a good hour we made cat calls and shouted one-liners. Most of which I can’t remember although I do know that some were hilarious….to us…at that moment and in that frame of mind. Who knows how annoying we were, or if anyone actually heard anything we were saying.

21426_10201958554872458_1159161861_nThere was enough time to grab a beer for those of us who wanted one and then Scott came tearing into view and as planned, our team-shirted crew ran through the finish line together. A team photo took place soon after and then we tore into two pizzas and devoured them in minutes. The Great River Ragnar Run of 2013 had ended. We didn’t linger (heh…linger again). We were tired and wanted to get home and cleaned. We hugged, we shook hands, and we wished each other well. Some of us asked to be involved next year and whether or not we would do the Ragnar again, we all left with smiles.

I spent several hours that night going through pictures, which did an excellent job of filling in the many gaps in my memory. I drank a couple beers and rested on the couch and then slept for 10 hours, one of the longest sleeps I’ve had in years. I woke up feeling tired and sore and a little depressed. The event was over and it had been such a departure, such a thrilling adventure, that I wanted to be only in that frame of mind. Morning meant I was confronted with the routine of life, obligations at work, bills to pay, to-do lists to execute.

It was a sad feeling knowing the Ragnar was over and that I could soon be like one of those unknowing souls in the Target parking lot. All the hours or training, the many protein drinks and smoothies I’d consumed after my runs, the times I had spotted my Ragnar coworkers in the hallways at work and asked how their training was going. That was all over. I was downright bummed. I wanted to be with my team and enjoy the banter and jokes and excitement of the race. But then I realized all quests come to an end. All adventurers eventually return home to tell the tale, which is why I’m writing this very long blog post.

I know I left out a lot. Spit-siblings, feminism, card games, Daytona Beach, baseball talk and descriptions of water bottles so I hope your memories can fill in those gaps. And I feel bad that most of this is biased towards Van #1 but it was with Van #1 where most of my experiences took place.

The friends I made during the event, especially my mates in the van will always occupy a fond place in my memory. I’m not even sure if I would call them friends because they are more than that. I guess it’s like how veterans feel returning from war. Not to put us anywhere near that class, but combat soldiers share an experience that no one who wasn’t part of their group would ever understand. Fortunately our experience was much more positive.

1006332_763119166657_345649024_nFrom now on, whenever I see any of my teammates we’ll share a knowing smile. 36 hours and 203 miles of running will be contained into a tiny little nod. A grin. A look that will say I was there with you, friend, and I know how hard you worked. I know exactly what you went through and I’m so glad that I did it with you.

It’s a bond I hope to have for the rest of my life. Twenty years from now when someone asks me “Do you know Drew Sagstetter?” Or Erica or John or Emily or Sarah or Christine or Donn or Scott or Meredith or Becca or Molly, I won’t say “Sure, we used to work together,” or “Sure, we ran together.” Instead I’ll say, “Hell yeah, we did Ragnar together and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life!”

As I sit here, forever changed as a runner and more experienced as a person I can’t shake the gloom. This is probably what an athlete feels like after they retire from a sport knowing their years on the field are over and it’s time for a new stage of life.

But hey! I am not retired! I’m not paid to run, I do it because it’s something I love to do. It gives me peace, it helps me stay healthy and it’s a great way to make new friends. I’m not retired, I’m just taking a few days off. I’ll be back at it in no time. And the only way to build that excitement, to experience the thrill of the Ragnar is to start training for next year and do it all over again. So…who’s with me?

Come on now…don’t linger.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Seventh Avenue Productions Announces Release of “Kmart Shoes” by Lance Ward

August 17, 2012

“Obviously, I didn’t kill myself” – Lance Ward

Now available for pre-order for $9.99. Click here to order and be one of the first to receive a copy!!

This is the true story of Lance Ward’s journey in and out of high school and his fights against abusive and uncaring family members, school yard bullies, and his own sense of self-worth. With his family in poverty, Lance grew up on sardine sandwiches and cabbage soup. He wore $8 shoes and tolerated hostile classmates and the nickname Kmart Shoes. On some days, Ward battled drug addiction and felony charges, on others he just needed to find a place to sleep in his own home. A con man screwed up his life, Ward’s mother kicked him out, his father didn’t want him, and the military wouldn’t take him. Only one thing kept him going – he could draw. Now, years later, Lance looks back and tells us his story in raw, honest detail. An in-your-face story of struggle and survival that is heart-breaking, comical, sad and triumphant.

$9.99 ….33% off the cover price!! Click here to order

“There’s a fantastic rawness to both his storytelling and drawing…Ward had a resiliency to him that allowed him to fight back against his tormentors and carve out an identity for himself…a bold, unadorned, and powerful autobiographical voice.”

-The Comics Journal

Lance Ward is a national editorial cartoonist for Crowded Comics.com and the author of KLONKO, One Day in 1978 and Stovetop (Creator’s Edge Press). His cartoons have appeared in The Pulse magazine, The Cedar magazine and City Pages. In 2011, he was featured artist for the “Just Add Ink” art show at Altered Esthetics Art Gallery.

Kmart Shoes will be released October 6th, 2012 by Seventh Avenue Productions.

6 x 9, 156 pages, black and white, soft cover

ISBN: 978-0-9838854-4-3

$14.95 US

1. Lance grew up with “Jim” as a father figure.

2. New Year’s Eve 1986 was a pivotal moment in Lance’s life. Obviously, he didn’t kill himself.

3. Lance was lucky to meet lots of very helpful people…


Home to Nagasaki – Chapter 3

July 10, 2012

Hiroshima, Japan

August 6th, 1945 8:16am

White skies.

Then a bright and clear morning was suddenly dark.

My military instincts told me to dive for cover but before I hit the ground, a force like a giant’s hand lifted me into the air and threw me towards the river. I hit the paved road, landing on my knees as my wrists slammed into the gravel. Ignoring sandy cuts and scrapes, I clawed my way behind a stone wall as I was showered by a bomb of splinters and dirt.

Black spots, white spots. Ringing bells.

I rolled one direction, then another. Was I asleep? Did I awake? I tasted dirt in my mouth and was stung by burning soot up my nose. Hot, acid snot oozed down the back of my throat like lava.

For a moment I remembered the bomb shelter just fifty feet away but an intense wind blew dust into my face. So I kept my eyes closed and my head down. I was curled into a ball, covering my face with my scraped wrists and stinging hands as the wind pelted me with sands and sticks. There had been no explosions. No familiar pop-pop-pop of bombs detonating in the distance, no BOOM! when one landed nearby. There was no mass of airplanes buzzing above, no whistle as their bombs fell from the sky, no return fire from our anti-aircraft batteries.

Just a flash of light and a burst of wind followed by an avalanche of dirt and junk.

My briefcase was beneath me but I kicked it away. The vial with my capsule dug into my ribs. Minutes later as the wind began to die, I lifted my head to see all of Hiroshima shrouded in a brown haze. Through the dust, a cloud of fire grew a mile into the sky.

I was suddenly disappointed that the city had not survived. What did it mean for my plan? I wanted to ask someone. I wanted to know.

My eyes burned as grit filled my pores. I began to lose focus. My head hurt and I could feel wetness dripping from both ears. I used a hand to wipe the moisture from my temple and looked down to see red fingers.

Did I hear no explosion because I’d lost my hearing?

But I could hear the wind, the shattered pieces of lumber slapping and splintering against nearby houses. The fire. Like a rush of thunder, the fire! But there were no screams, no voices, no aguish. No cries of panic. Absent was the despair that had been so common during war I had known.

I checked my hands and saw the backs were scalded and burned, as if they had been dipped into a pot of boiling water.

Still halfway in shock, I tried to stand but my knees wobbled and I toppled to the ground. A small child walked by in a daze. A black dog passed the child from the other direction, limping and silent. A group of soldiers crawled from the bomb shelter, their bodies covered in soot, their ears bleeding, their faces dazed.

I heard a child ask his mother, “Why is it so dark in the morning?”

I saw myself walking up to the mother as she held her child close, towering above them as the wind and the dirt blew overhead. As she brushed dust off her child’s face, I saw myself looking into her blurry eyes, her mouth caked with dirt. I saw myself ask her, “What does this mean for me?”

The air raid was over in an instant. Had there been only one bomb?

“Impossible.” I muttered.

I imagined myself standing before a classroom of schoolchildren, looking upon the kids who raised their hands and wanted to know if Hiroshima had been hit – if it had been utterly destroyed – by a single American bomb?

I shook my head. “There is no way one bomb can damage so much.” Yet I saw burning buildings all around me. Bodies lining the street as if an army had marched through and executed thousands of people at will. Survivors rose from the wreckage, their faces blank, their eyes lost.

“No way one bomb can do this,” I convinced myself.

Then a hand wrapped around my ankle. I looked down to see Masaru, my commanding officer and saw half his face burned red, his eye sockets blistered. His hair singed and smoking, his good looks destroyed. But when I saw the alertness in his eyes I knew his mind remained unblemished. There was a flicker that I’m sure my eyes lacked.

As his fist squeezed my ankle, I thought of Masaru’s intense patriotism. His sense of nationalism that refused to let me escape with our secrets. I was reminded of his exuberant need to guard the tales of the facility.

Masaru had my ankle but I had forgotten him already.

I thought of the facility.

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Home to Nagasaki – Chapter 2

May 17, 2012

War Ministry Grand Conference Hall, Tokyo

1937

Masaru dressed immaculately in his military uniform and stood half a head taller than the Imperial officers in the auditorium. With movie star good-looks and a deep, bombastic voice, he took the podium and stared for a moment into the standing-room sea of Japanese military officers, scientists, and even Prince Chichibu, brother of Emperor Hirohito.

Masaru was to demonstrate the advanced water filtration system that I had invented and he had championed. “Conduct the demonstration yourself,” Masaru urged me but I politely declined.

“I’m a man of engineering and science, not theatrics.”

Masaru smiled knowing we both thought of him as the superior showman. He was a better advocate of the device we had developed, of anything we had developed. Now he stood on the auditorium stage beside a table with a prototype of the filtration device, a complicated highway of tubes, piping and chemistry. This was a miniature version of the system we hoped the army would fund. A funnel at the top collected the unpurified water while pair of dials measured its chemical properties. A tin canister underneath the devise would collect the purified water as it dripped from the pipes above.

Now Masaru addressed the room, needing no microphone as his voice boomed and echoed off the back wall. “Who can deny the importance of providing drinkable water to our armed forces in the forward theater? I present the most advanced water purification system in the world, capably of cleansing the most putrid water into a clean, drinkable supply. Allow me to demonstrate.”

Masaru unzipped his pants as the military audience gasped in horror and watched him remove his penis. He produced a metal cup and urinated into it in front of everyone. This move shocked me at first but I had already learned to accept this flamboyance as part of Masaru’s personality. He cared little what others thought of him. He was known to brag loudly of his successes with little regard for decorum, and to indulge in wine and women recklessly and frequently. This brash act of peeing into a cup as a crowded room of his superiors watched every drop fall was simply Masaru seizing attention. He thrived on the discomfort he caused and used it merely as a method of engaging his audience.

Now he zipped his pants and carried the piss-filled cup to the device, pouring the urine into the funnel atop of the contraption. He narrated the filtration process as the urine made its way through the pipes and eventually came dripping out of the nozzle above the collection canister.

He poured the contents into a glass and carried the seemingly clear and clean water into the audience. I wasn’t surprised when he stopped before Chichibu Hirohito and offered the water to the Emperor’s brother. Stern and surprised the prince quickly refused the glass with a curt wave of his hand. Masaru, surely expecting the prince to decline the test, raised the glass as if he were toasting the room, tilted his head back and quaffed the entire portion in one gulp. The crowd gasped but Masaru wiped his lips with the back of a hand and then smiled proudly awaiting his applause.

The dutiful assistant that I was, I started it with a hearty clap that slowly spread until the entire room was on its feet. The purification devise was a success and the army soon awarded Masaru with the funds he had requested, yet the money was for more than an innovative system of cleaning water. We were on our way to Ping Fan to the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army, code name: Unit 731.

With the funding we’d receive from our water purification system, Masaru and I would soon turn the facility into the headquarters for Japan’s chemical and biological weapons program.

“This is an incredible honor, Captain,” Masaru said to me as we celebrated that night, a bottle of sake in both hands and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He emptied one of the bottles into my glass and tossed the spent bottle aside.

For as long as I had known Masaru he had been a heavy drinking night owl, but only after a day of hard work. The microbiologist was tall and athletic, his uniform always spotless and he often bested me in footraces or games of tennis. Our fellow officers envied his physical bravado and his seemingly constant supply of cash. Women flocked around him like bees to a jar of honey. He advanced quickly through the ranks of Japan’s military and was eager to take me with him.

His giant hand proudly slapped my back. He grinned and showed his shiny white teeth. “Drink up, Kiyoshi. Celebrate!”

He toasted our drinks as Masaru nibbled at the pair of young women on either of his shoulders. The bar was loud and rowdy. Music blared from above and Masaru made sure my glass was eternally filled with liquor. “The demonstration was a resounding success!” he declared. “I am anxious to put into practice these ideas we have developed. The ideas we have developed together, Kiyoshi. I’m anxious to make Japan the leading nation for the technologies of warfare.”

Developed together, he stressed. I had been the man behind the science, to engineer the water purification devise, to birth ideas for our military technology.

Masaru was right. It was an incredible honor for us to be chosen to head Unit 731. Masaru and I had studied together at Kyoto University. We became doctors together, and had served together in the Army ever since we engaged the Chinese in Manchuria in 1931. Masaru was always one rank ahead of me, always had one more friend than I did, and seemed to need me one step below him always looking up. So he kept me around. When he was promoted and transferred, he always brought me with him, made sure I was paid well, confided in me, and trusted my expertise.

And when Masaru had been chosen to run Japan’s premier chemical and biological weapons research facility, he named me his second-in-command.

Masaru’s remaining sake bottle clanked against my glass. “Congratulations, Captain, and be proud! It is an honor to serve the Emperor!”

I said nothing, sipped my sake and took the last drag from my cigarette.

 

Mark McGinty‘s work has appeared in Maybourne Magazine, Montage Magazine, Cigar City Magazine and Germ Warfare. His novel The Cigar Maker won a Bronze Medal at the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was named Finalist at both the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards and the 2011 National Indie Excellence Awards.


Crowded Comics Gives YOU a Chance to Bring the Funny — Every Day!

April 14, 2012

Created by David Burnett, Kevin Cannon and Oleg Terenchuk, Crowded Comics has cleverly democratizing the editorial cartoon by combining crowd-sourced punchlines with  original, high quality, timely cartoons on political and cultural issues. Instead of a political cartoon on the editorial page of the daily newspaper, at Crowded Comics THE READER writes the captions. Featuring daily artwork by a team of prolific cartoonists, Crowded Comics has built a new way of engaging news fans directly with editorial cartoons. The power of comedy and opinion has been surrendered to the hands of readers. The artists draw the comics but you write the captions.

They usually add a pair of comics each day, on issues ranging from the presidential election to Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen’s incomprehensible admission that he “loves Fidel Castro.” Always up to date with the latest news, the clever and captivating comics are often funny without the captions but scrolling through the variety of captions added by CC readers is the true fun. The captions are ranked by the readers and fall into a ladder that allows you to vote for your favorite caption and increase its rank. You can also “vote down”  a caption you don’t like and watch it fall. At the end of the day a winner is declared. That winner could be you!

Featuring the artwork of Ken Avidor, Lupi, Lance Ward, Dan Murphy, Kevin Cannon and Kirk Anderson the artists are open to your ideas and will draw a comic based on your requests as long as the subject is relevant and captionable. I’ve posted a few samples here but doesn’t can’t be done unless you go to Crowded Comics to view the comics and add your own captions! It’s a fun, easy way to stay up to date on the news (and let’s face it, to kill a few minutes while at work!!).

Their comics – your voice!! Pay them a visit right here!!

Mark McGinty is the Author of The Cigar Maker and Elvis and the Blue Moon Conspiracy. His work has appeared in Maybounrne Magazine, Germ Warfare and Chrono Chaos.


Small Press Reviews Calls Germ Warfare “Bizarre, Funny and Kind of Gross”

December 11, 2011

Cold and flu season is upon us, so what better way to celebrate than with a bit of germ warfare — or at least a copy of Germ Warfare: An Anthology of Comics for Germs and their Generous Human Hosts?

This bizarre collection of comics takes a microscopic look at the world of infectious bacteria and offers, among other things, a germ’s eye view of the atrocities we humans commit every time we pump a dollop of sanitizer onto our hands or take a dose of penicillin.

Other highlights include several visits to the home of germaphobes Stew and Berryl Sterrel as they struggle to remain germ-free despite the best efforts of their baby and a comical retelling of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Overall, this collection carries a strong underground comics vibe – none of the offerings more so than the Mark McGinty penned and Lupi McGinty illustrated “Perched on the Denim Slope,” a graphic homage to JG Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” whose art is reminiscent of Charles Burns and the Hernandez brothers.

Bizarre, funny, and kind of gross, Germ Warfare is the perfect gift for the germ warrior in your life!

 -Review by Marc Schuster