Twenty-five years ago, I did something stupid.
In that quarter century, I’ve had plenty of time to think and reflect on my actions the night of April 3, 1997.
I’ve made tons of excuses for what I did.
My father was terminally ill (he’d die 13 months later), and I had anger at losing another parent – my mother left our family when I was eight.
Due to financial losses, the school I taught at was cutting costs, and I’d been told in October my contract wouldn’t be renewed. I didn’t take that very well, since Syria was an escape from “real life”, and I didn’t want to go home.
But these are just excuses – in fact, during the two years of living as an expatriate in the Middle East, I didn’t think local rules applied to me.
After all, I’d gone “surfing” in the back of a pickup truck dressed in black tie when returning home from a Lounge Lizards event at the local Sheraton.
And when the police pulled us over, another “surfer” flashed his diplomatic passport and yelled “F*** OFF!” and drove away.
We’d paid police to look away from parties we threw, drove around police shakedowns as locals paid baksheesh to avoid harassment. One expat was forced to leave after mentioning his admiration for Israel in his workplace, and an informant reported him, but I’d heard of no other trouble for foreigners in Syria.
So, no mention of Israel, but all else goes…got it.
Combine my attitude of infallibility with alcohol, and trouble was bound to ensue.
In early April, we had year-end parent/teacher conferences. The students had half-days on that Wednesday and Thursday (the last two days of the school week), and as an experienced teacher, I made sure all of my appointments were scheduled for the first day so I could start the weekend early.
I finished school at 11:30 on Thursday, then stepped out into the beautiful spring day and went directly to the bar in the Meridien Hotel.
Two fellow teachers, Science Guy and Calculus, joined me a few minutes later. By noon, we were dipping into beers like nomads who’d just stumbled upon an oasis of beer. By four o’clock, we were well into the bag, but just starting the evening.
One of the elementary teachers at our school was marrying a UN soldier, and all the women on campus were invited to a bachelorette party, so one of the husbands invited the guys over to his apartment a few blocks away. When we arrived, the casual get-together was well underway – plenty of beer was available, so the festivities continued.
Around seven, people began to filter out of the apartment to head home, grab dinner and get ready for the Australian Embassy bar party, which opened around nine. There were four of us left: the three of us from the hotel bar and the host himself.
We stepped onto the fifth-story balcony, and Science Guy mentioned it might be possible to spot the Hale-Bopp Comet in the clear spring evening.
Someone took out binoculars, we each took a look, but I was more interested in the crowd at the base of the apartment building.
I yelled in Arabic at them, vulgar language that could make a woman blush and a teenager giggle. Someone looked up and said something, at which point I lobbed some peanuts and popcorn over the balcony and let gravity take hold. A few of the Syrians yelled up at me. Science Guy was not amused, and warned us to stop, but Calculus and Host laughed and joined in the drunken fun.
Over the next few minutes, it went from peanuts and popcorn to empty beer cans, then full beer cans, and then someone dumped the trash can onto the sidewalk.
I wasn’t to be outdone – Calculus and I grabbed a six-foot long concrete flower bed, swung it back and forth, and on the count of three let go. The people below ran for cover.
We’d hoped to hit the street, but the flower bed was too heavy – on its way to crashing on the sidewalk, it hit some electrical wires. “BZZZZZZZ….” The wires snapped, then BOOM as a transformer blew.
And the four of us watched Damascus, neighborhood by neighborhood, go dark. We’d caused a city-wide blackout.
It quickly dawned on us that the apartment wasn’t the safest place for us to be, so we rushed out and down the steps. There were about forty Syrians in the street, looking up at the building and wondering what had happened.
I’m not sure where Host went, but Calculus went home to sleep it off, while Science Guy and I went to a nearby apartment of some female friends of mine, where I told the story of what we’d done, complete with the BZZZZZZ and BOOM! of the transformer. After I finished laughing about what I’d just done, I invited the girls to join us for dinner, but wisely they decided against it, possibly in fear for their own safety.
A little after ten o’clock, we finished dinner and took a taxi to the Australian Embassy to continue the party…but the school administration was waiting for us.
And they were not happy.
The headmaster screamed at us, “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE??!!”
At that moment I wasn’t aware of how serious it was.
But it wouldn’t take long…
…to be continued…
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