Curse the night. I awoke today again at 0330, ready to go. Perhaps I need to stay up later...went to bed at 2130, so six hours is a respectable rest. On the good side, the early wakeup gives me the opportunity to get some work done, and to spend some time with you.
We had an early start yesterday, meeting in the lobby at 0700 to head to the train station to catch our high speed rail to Kaoshiung in the southern part of the island, there to be whisked by bus to a nearby Navy base. Taiwan is a sort of tropical place, lots of palm trees, etc. But the 90 minute ride south took us to a downright tropical place--beautiful, hot, a bit humid, etc. The ride on the train was uneventful, through a mostly green but densely packed country. We were in business class, which essentially meant a large, reclining seat (assigned) and fetching Train Attendants (one with mask--still don't get this). This was my first ride on a legitimate "High Speed Train", and I have to say I'm a believer. The Wiki I linked to above about the rail line indicates that it was built and operated by a private corporation (good), but I wonder what kind of government intercession was required to make it happen.
The Navy base we visited was nice, not Air Force quality mind you (more on that later), but nice enough. We were met at the zone HQ building by two two-stars, and the head of our delegation was "piped aboard". I needled our retired USAF general at this point, reminding him of the great deals Navy admirals get, what with all the whistling, and side boys, and bells, etc. We were ushered into the standard U-Shaped briefing room, with the standard pre-poured (and somewhat lukewarm) coffee, and the standard plate of sweets and fruit. Since it had been a full two hours since I had gorged myself on the breakfast buffet at the hotel, I made fast work of these offerings. We were briefed on the Navy's view of the situation in the Strait and their building program; the briefing was done by a Captain from HQ in Taipei--and it was superb. He was a Naval War College grad and his English was impeccable. He blew through his slide deck with skill, and it was a fact-packed presentation. Some of you know that they are very keen to obtain diesel submarines, and they made this very clear. So clear that they took us after the brief down to the piers to visit one of their four submarines....two of which are 70 year old US WWII diesels and two of which are 30 year old Dutch diesels. We visited one of the US boats, and god love 'em, they seemed to do a pretty good job keeping it up. But the message was clear--our submarines are old and we need new ones....and we need your help.
We left the boat after about a half hour visit, and then headed to the Marine Corps section of the base to get a brief from the Marines and a visit to one of their motor pools. I have a theory that Marines are basically stamped out of the same machine, with language and ethnicity selection being the last phase in their production. Motivated and physically fit, they put on a nice show which included a ride in one of their LTV's. I must say, our group of older, less fit gentlemen looked a bit silly with the white helmets and white gloves they gave us for the LTV ride. But one does not question Marines of any type when they are on a roll.
We alighted to our buses for another high speed rail ride about halfway up the island, where we were met by a representative from the 427th Fighter Wing and his big air conditioned bus which took us to their base. The ride was about forty minutes through scenes of Taiwan life. I cannot think that unemployment is high here, as wherever I go there is a overabundance of staff. At a red light, I peered over to a filling station and to my wondrous eyes, it was like that scene from Back to the Future where the Marty sees the uniformed pit crew descend on a motorist for filling, wiping, and inflating. We arrived after hitting every red light along the way at a magnificent Air Force base (but I repeat myself), built were were to learn, in no small measure by the USAF who used it extensively during the Viet Nam conflict. We got a brief from the Fighter Wing Commander (actually a video, complete with "Top Gun" music) and then headed out to the flight line to visit their Indigenous Defense Fighter which appears to be essentially a two-engine F-16. After the static display, we headed over to their simulator facility, and we each got to "fly" the fighter.
Now, I've never held fighter pilots in particularly high regard. Not low regard either, but just not high. But after ten minutes of flying this high performance jet, I need to tell you that doing so is a skill....no question about it. Standing next to the cockpit looking at the large screen encapsulating us, one could easily get motion sickness. The experience was so lifelike that as one of your buddies was "flying", your body couldn't help but move along with things, even though the room was saying completely still. This was a very cool experience.
We then headed to a place that I'm still having a little difficulty processing...the old base Chapel built by the U.S. Air Force, still very much resembling a chapel, but now housing a museum dedicated to the U.S. presence there. A young, fetching Air Force enlisted woman was our guide, and she was one of the most enthusiastic people I have met in a long time. She took us through the displays, which were essentially the detritus of the U.S. presence there. Shoes, table settings from the O'Club, Detroit switches and AC/R power panels. Picture after picture of U.S. service members smiling, surrounded by their Taiwanese counterparts. A slightly bawdy poster from the wall of the O'club, presumably the pool room. The whole thing brought home to me what it must be like FOR A COUNTRY to be abandoned by the world. Let's face it...only 22 nations recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, and we aren't one of them. We are still very good friends, and their is genuine affection on their part for the US, but you simply can't get around the isolation these folks must truly feel.
We hopped in our buses for the every red light trip back to the town 40 minutes away, then to the high speed train, then to Taipei and our hotel. Because we arrived late late in a long day, there was no formal dinner. There was however, a hotel restaurant serving from yet another ridiculous buffet, and so I joined a group of fellow travelers and gave it the old college try--though I was somewhat restrained after the big piece of cake I ate at the Chapel/Museum.
Kind of a light day today (Thursday) and then tomorrow is filled with "National Day" celebrations.