An extraordinary rescue in the Chilean desert

9780374280604
The book “Deep Down Dark” was the basis for the film “The 33,” starring Antonio Banderas. The movie came out in November 2015.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

“Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” by Héctor Tobar (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, $26)

Writing a book about an international news event, especially one that gripped the attention of the world for 69 straight days, is a daunting challenge for any author. The basic facts — 33 men were trapped in a mine in the northern Chilean desert near the city of Copiapó — were already known, as was the outcome — an extraordinary rescue, brought about by a multinational team of the right people in the right place at the right time.

So Los Angeles Times reporter Héctor Tobar, an American of Guatemalan heritage, had his work cut out for him when he was hand-selected by the miners to tell their story.

What hadn’t been revealed was how the 33 miners survived the first 17 days of their collective nightmare, when the mine owners, the families and friends were without proof that  anyone had survived the spontaneous explosions that sent a 550-foot-tall piece of gray diorite rock (about the equivalent of a 45-story building), weighing about 770,000 tons, crashing through the center of the 121-year-old San José Mine.

Another challenge: How to sift through the varied recollections of 33 individuals (32 Chileans and one Bolivian), some who may have had their own agenda, to compile a coherent picture of what happened? (Pulitzer Prize-winner Tobar also had access to a written diary that Víctor Segovia, 48, driver of a jumbo lifter, kept almost from the beginning, and some cellphone video.)

Furthering the difficulty: Many, if not all, of the 33 freed men that Tobar interviewed were suffering mentally from the after-effects of their experience. He doesn’t call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but their symptoms seem to fit that description.

Though Tobar writes about the ordeal from rock fall to rescue and beyond, it is in describing the first weeks of the men’s confinement that his narrative skill is at its peak. Readers will feel like they are physically isolated with the men in the oppressive heat and humidity of the mine, sharing their fears, and facing the uncertainty of whether they’ll ever be found — alive or dead — more than 2,100 feet below the surface.

By many accounts, August 5, 2010, was an ordinary day. Some men said they heard what they thought was unusual rumbling within the mine, a rich source of copper and some gold. But a mine is a living thing and some noise is a constant.

The men knew that the San José Mine had a poor safety record and that its owners had not carried out some of the required improvements.

The trade-off was that the miners — with bills to pay and families to support like everyone else — earned about $1,200 a month, higher wages than at some other facilities. They knew the risks when they began each 12-hour shift.

The accident happened after 1 p.m., when some of the men were expecting to be heading via truck to the surface for lunch. The ride up (or down) the Ramp, a switchback and spiral road in the mine, could extend for four to five miles, depending upon how deep a level they were working in.

A small team tried to find a way out, climbing up a rebar-runged ladder inside one of the inclined vertical shafts, called chimneys, that connect the levels of the mine. But rocks were still falling and some of the chimneys were illegally without ladders; the route was not viable.

So they retreated and joined the others, their sole stroke of luck being that all the men could make their way to the Refuge, a “room” with a white-tiled floor and a steel door that was the designated area where miners were supposed to ride out any accident. Unfortunately, it was stocked for a stay of only about two days for 25 men.

Links to the intercom, a source of fresh air and electricity were severed, the only light being that cast from the lamp on their helmets. Later Juan Illanes, a mechanic with a flair for storytelling, rigged a connection to a truck battery that provided a minimal amount of illumination, and the miners could also recharge their helmet headlamps from the stranded vehicles’ batteries.

The men ranged from Mario Gómez, 63, a truck driver, to Jimmy Sánchez, 18, who, technically shouldn’t have been in the mine, its minimum age for employment being 21. It was the first day inside the mine for front loader driver Carlos Mamami, 24, a Bolivian.

This was the entire inventory that kept the men alive for 17 days: one can of salmon, one can of peaches, 18 cans of tuna, one can of peas, 24 cans of condensed milk (eight of which were spoiled), 93 packages of cream-sandwich cookies (four cookies to a package) and 10 bottles of water. A source of industrial water was nearby, and though potable, it was contaminated with some amount of motor oil.

Each miner existed on one teaspoon of tuna a day, mixed with some water to make a broth, and two cookies, totaling less than 300 calories.

The men knew the situation was dire, but when they took a head count, they found that they totaled 33, to the religious among them, a significant number.

“The age of Christ!” says Mario Sepúlveda, a front-loader operator, referencing how old Jesus was at his crucifixion. “This has to mean something. There’s something bigger for us waiting outside.”

One of the first decisions that shift supervisor Luis Urzúa, 54, a trained topographer, made was to resign his position of authority. In his mind, if the men were going to survive, they had to put aside rank, personality differences and petty arguments, and make decisions as a unit.

What they could do as “one” every day before their noon “meal” was pray, in a service led by José Henríquez, 54, who became known as “the Pastor.”  Their faith would help them to endure the extreme physical and mental strain, while their very humanity was being tested.

To fill the anxiety-ridden days, the men tried to conserve their ebbing energy, attempted to buoy one another’s spirits and shared stories to take their minds off their predicament. Some work had to be done as well, such as filling the water tanks and policing the latrine area. They also fashioned a game of checkers from cardboard and domino pieces from white reflective plastic off a truck sign.

Meanwhile, above ground, the San Esteban Mining Company, the mine owners, had no rescue capacity for a task this size, so a government-sponsored team was mobilized. The effort ended up costing nearly $20 million.

Four days passed before any sort of drilling began. Mining equipment, trucks and specialists  — including a NASA team — and the world’s press came from far and wide to cover not only the rescue attempt but the plight of the families and friends who set up Camp Esperanza (Hope) nearby.

On the 17th day, the drilling broke through to the Refuge.

Up came the terse but reassuring message, written in red: “Estamos bien en el Refugio. Los 33.” (We are well in the Refuge. The 33.)

Once a shaft was opened, food, inflatable beds, a video camera and other supplies were sent down. Eventually, a fiber optic TV link was installed and kept open. And, most important of all, they now had the ability to exchange letters (and brief phone calls and video chats) with loved ones.

They also received newspapers, and were aware that the world was watching. They’d become celebrities, showered with offers of money and free vacation trips, awaiting them above ground. Not surprisingly, the bickering and the perception of slights became more frequent as some of the men believed their reclaimed lives would be on easy street, exacerbating their impatience to be freed.

Of the three strategies rescuers came up with, Plan B was the one to free the miners. While drilling continued, construction began at a Chilean naval shipyard on the steel-plated Escape Vehicle “Fénix,” that would bring the men out one by one.

And on the 69th day, October 13, Florencio Avalos, 31, second in command to Urzúa, was first to emerge from the mine. As shift supervisor, Urzúa, was the last of the 33 men to see the sky once more.

As the situation was developing, several media outlets produced excellent cross-section graphics illustrating how the drilling was being executed to reach the miners, and where the miners were living in the Refuge and on the Ramp levels. But no graphics were included in the book.

Neither were any photographs, with the exception of 33 small, poor quality black-and-white head shots at the beginning of the book. No pictures of the exterior of the San José Mine or surrounding Atacama desert, no map of Chile, no pictures of any of the family members or friends at Camp Esperanza or any of the government officials or experts who came to the site to render assistance were included.

What also would have been helpful was a chronology, tracking the day-to-day progress, and if not day-to-day, then at least the major milestones. And needed most of all was a list of every miner, his age, what his job was in the mine and how long he’d been employed. Some of this information was sprinkled throughout the text, but with so many personalities, and as good a job as Tobar did bringing them to life, an alphabetized list would have been beneficial to readers.

The film “The 33,” starring Antonio Banderas as Mario Sepúlveda, Lou Diamond Phillips as Luis Urzúa, and James Brolin, Gabriel Byrne and Juliette Binoche, opened in theaters last November. It was based on Tobar’s book.

Quick reference: To read an excerpt, go to http://us.macmillan.com/books/9780374280604

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Amezaiku: Edible art from Japan

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At a Tokyo shop, Isono Mikako demonstrates how to pull the bunny’s back legs from a lump of hot sugar-and-rice-flour mixture in the ancient art of amezaiku. My friend Hatsumi took this photo.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

My sticky, pink fingertips were rapidly turning red and silently screaming “hot, hot, hot.” At the same time, my brain was prompting me to work “faster, faster, faster.”  All the while, I was trying to remember the six cuts I needed to make in a specific order in less than three minutes to finish my task.

When  I was in Tokyo in 2014, I attempted amezaiku, the art of sculpting burn-inducing, liquified candy into recognizable shapes, such as mammals (ferocious lion, prancing stag), lifelike goldfish, multicolored dragons, birds and pretty much anything the artist can imagine.

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Ame-shin, a shop in the Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, where I tried my hand at amezaiku.

I had signed up for a hourlong workshop at Ame-Shin, a small business in the historic Asakusa neighborhood of Tokyo, to watch, learn and make an animal. Unfortunately, my woeful attempts elicited laughter from my friends Hatsumi and her mother, Mieko, who were along to translate what the instructors were saying. And as my hands were otherwise engaged, Hatsumi was also taking photographs.

As with many other types of arts and crafts, the Japanese have perfected the amezaiku technique and elevated it to a master level. But in this era of instant everything, when fewer people are willing to put in the time to learn traditional arts, it’s estimated there are fewer than 50 people in all of Japan who actively practice amezaiku.

The sun-filled shop, with three shiny wooden tables and matching benches, was spotless. Along the left rear wall, resting on two shelves, were finished animals, enveloped in clear plastic, waiting to be “adopted” by customers. Shinri Tezuka, shop owner and amezaiku artist, was sitting at a table near the opposite wall, crafting a series of pieces.

On the table in front of me was the model bunny I was going to attempt to copy and a metal tray with several sets of palm-sized, straight-handled, steel Japanese scissors.

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The heated mixture is dug out of the pot and attached to a wooden stick. The butterscotch-colored practice sugar mixture can be reheated and reused.

Instructor Isono Mikako began by using several chopsticks bundled together to dig a portion of the just-barely-pliable material, a deep butterscotch color, from its heating vessel. At Ame-Shin, students use a glutenous, rice flour-based sugar mixture combined with other undisclosed ingredients for the two practice runs before making the amezaiku they’ll take home. This third figure is white, made from a purer, edible sugar mixture.

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Mikako fashions the rice flour into a mushroom-like shape from which the running bunny will emerge. Hatsumi took this photo.

 

Mikako, herself a trainee of Tezuka, prepared the sugar by pulling it like taffy, then folded it back onto itself. Next, coaxing the edges inward, she formed it into a ball, which was attached to the business end of a chopstick. Plump and round, it more closely resembled a button mushroom than a flat lollipop.

The steps were demonstrated this way: On one side of the ball, a little of the sugar was delicately patted to begin making a rounded head. Next, two cuts were made behind the “head” on each side, with the pieces stretched up and out and pinched carefully into ears. The next two cuts were made lower on each side of the “chest,” by pushing the Japanese scissors deep into the “body.” These pieces were pulled down, narrowed and flattened into front paws.

For the fifth cut, at the rump end, Mikako used the scissors’ tips to grab a small button of sugar and twirled the scissors around the base for a tail. Below that, using thumb and index finger, a thick section of sugar was pulled down and out, being set up for the final cut. This was perhaps the hardest one of all, because by now the sugar was starting to set. But Mikako made it look easy. This cut separated enough of the sugar mixture so that the rear-facing back paws could be formed. Some overall body sculpting brought the bunny to life.

Among the key things Mikako cautioned me to remember: Work quickly and gently — no squishing. All easier said than done, considering that the sugar mixture was about 180 degrees Fahrenheit. We talked about the steps, then Tezuka demonstrated a second bunny. He’s been an amezaiku artist for about eight years (as of 2016), and his bunny was even better than Mikako’s.

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Mikako tries to guide my scissor cuts in the rapidly hardening candy. Hatsumi took this photo.

Then it was my turn. and I proved to be woefully inept. The ears were short and pointy. The front paws worse, stubs where they should have been indicating movement. Even the tail was an odd shape. And as for the back paws, well, my bunny wasn’t going to be “running” anywhere.

In fact, it didn’t even look like a bunny; one friend thought it looked like a Pokemon character. Aside from the distinct fact that I was burning my fingertips, I found cutting into the sugar to be the most difficult part. It was so thick that I couldn’t make the deeper cuts one-handed. Bringing my left hand on board to help didn’t solve anything and led the whole creation to begin to teeter off the end of the chopstick. Mikako stepped in to catch it before it could fall off altogether.

My second attempt was a little better because I had some idea of the heat and how difficult it was to manipulate the ball. But it was still very poor. Normally, the next attempt would be with the edible sugar, but Mikako and Tezuka took pity on me and let me have a third practice run.

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This bunny is what I was trying to emulate.

Alas, my fourth go was not my vision of a graceful Peter Cottontail either; it looked like it had made one too many trips to Mr. MacGregor’s vegetable patch. I was able to elongate the ears a little, and the tail was a cute puff, but the body was too chubby, and all four paws needed more length and definition. And calamity of calamities, one of the front paws broke off.

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Shinri Tezuka, owner of Ame-Shin, does surgery on my bunny. On the tray at left are several of my failed attempts and the model bunnies that Mikako and Tezuka demonstrated for me. Hatsumi took this photo.

Tezuka to the rescue! With a small torch, like something that might be used to caramelize the top of crème brûlée, he reattached my bunny’s paw.

Next it was time to decorate. Tezuka brought a small glass vial and a jar of toothpicks to the table. The vial held a tiny amount of diluted sugar colored a deep red with vegetable dye. He showed me how to apply the finishing touches to the face by making a series of close-together tiny dots to draw the nose, eyes and mouth. With the liquid diluted even further, he used a paintbrush to color the inside of the ears pinkish. Even animated, my bunny still wasn’t anything to brag about.

I had begun by naively asking if I would be allowed to choose the animal I wanted to make. I was told no, that all beginners start with a bunny because it is the easiest form to fashion, easy being a relative term.

Tezuka can be found most days at his shop. Sometimes he plies his trade at festivals, and he’s available to hire for private parties.

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I had great fun trying to make an amezaiku bunny, but as you can see, the result wasn’t stellar. Hatsumi took this photo.

Amezaiku is an ancient art, though sources disagree on just how old it is. Some say it dates to the Heian period (794-1185) and may have been introduced by Chinese performers visiting Japan. Others trace the art’s popularity to the more recent Edo period (1615-1868) in Japan.

For the past two centuries, amezaiku artists have been a popular attraction at street festivals. The Nagasaki University Library collection has several faded photographs, possibly hand-tinted, showing a little girl dressed in a kimono and geta (wooden shoes) gazing up at a series of completed figures, like birds on a wire, resting on what look like bamboo or reed poles. The amezaiku artist, deep in concentration, stands next to his multilevel portable podium at the right of the photo, with his back to the child, blowing air into a small, heated sugar globe, reminiscent of techniques a glassblower would use (technical advances and hygiene requirements would make this impossible today). Date and location of the images are unknown.

In another similar photo, dating to the late 1800s, three barefoot boys of differing heights, their backs to the camera, watch the artist at work.

Cincinnati-born painter Robert Frederick Blum (1857-1903) was similarly entranced by amezaiku. He traveled to Japan in the late 1890s and stayed for three years. Among the canvases he painted was “The Ameya” (1893).

In it, a group of children, including four carrying infants on their backs, crowd around the seated, blue-clad, bespectacled amezaiku artist, watching intently as he works. The portable workshop looks exactly like the photographs mentioned above. In the oil painting, the children are oblivious to the other street figures: a man pulling a rickshaw, the shops across the way or the adults walking past. It’s a lovely painting, capturing a colorful, more innocent moment in time. The painting hangs in the American Wing, gallery 766, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You can also see it online at http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/10186.

A trip to Japan may seem a very long way to go just to see amezaiku in person. An easier option is to attend a Japanese cultural festival near your hometown. At Japan Fest, in September 2014 in an Atlanta suburb, I met Candy Miyuki, who has been performing amezaiku in America for nearly 20 years. If you’ve been to Walt Disney World in Orlando and visited the Japanese Pavilion, you may have seen her captivate young and old alike with her nimble fingers and narrative patter. After 17 years at Disney World, she struck out on her own in 2013.

Miyuki, whose real name is Miyuki Sugimori, is a Tokyo native and one of the few women amezaiku artists. She told me how enthralled she was when as a child of about 8 or 10 years old, she first saw amezaiku done. It seemed like magic, she says, and set her heart on learning the skills. She says she was not encouraged in this pursuit but persistence paid off as she finally persuaded her grandfather, a noted artist, to teach her.

In Atlanta, her demonstrations took place in a large exhibition hall, attended by several hundred people. Clad in a black hat with an eye-catching candy-striped band and with red sequins glued just below her left eye, Miyuki took suggestions from the audience as to what animals to make.

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Miyuki Sugimori, aka Candy Miyuki, cuts the feathers into a pink flamingo during a demonstration at JapanFest in an Atlanta suburb in 2014.

First up: a striking pink flamingo. The long-legged, feathered pink creature came to life in minutes. Next: a purple unicorn with a golden horn, requested by a little blonde girl who was sitting to my right. Once completed, Miyuki packaged the blue-winged mythical beast in a clear plastic bag and bestowed it upon the excited youngster.

Miyuki also fashioned a banana-holding brown monkey, and a brown and white dog. For her finale, she had the woman sitting to my left come to the stage and fashioned a sculpture of her.

She also performed for smaller gatherings later at her booth, where for about $10, visitors could select an animal from a laminated sheet for Miyuki to make.

A few amezaiku artists are based in the United States, such as Shinobu Ichiyanagi of Los Angeles, who left Japan more than 40 years, and his nephew Takafumi Ichiyanagi, who came over from Sapporo less than 10 years ago. They perform at private functions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs, birthday parties and corporate events.

In Honolulu, Nathan and Chika Tanaka have been in business as Candy Art Hawaii since 2009. Nathan is a civil engineer by training (it’s still his primary income), but he went to Shizuoka, Japan, for three years with JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching program) and stayed another three years to teach English. Chika was born and raised in Toyama, Japan.

They learned amezaiku with an instructor, but there has also been a fair amount of trial and error.

“We had guidance from Ishiwari-sensei [sensei means teacher or master] in Osaka,” Nathan Tanaka said via email. “I believe Ishiwari-sensei is the only artist actively advertising to teach artists (for a fee of course). However, his teaching is more of a watch-and-observe style, with few instructions. I don’t want to generalize as a Westerner and this may be a stereotype, but the Japanese style of passing down a skill is to observe, do it a thousand times, and figure it out yourself. So my training was brief with Ishiwari-sensei, and most of our skill or knowledge of preparing the candy has been self-taught.”

Tanaka added that Miyuki contributed helpful tips when she stayed at the Tanakas’ house in Hawaii.

He was most sympathetic when I recounted my amezaiku experience.

“Burning your fingers is the hardest thing to overcome,” he concurred. “Another difficult thing while learning is you have a limited time to work with the candy before it becomes too hard or brittle to work with. A beginner will take longer to shape the candy, and that just adds another layer of difficulty. Yet, as a beginner, rushing to make your candy may not result in the desired shape. So either you carefully shape the candy but run the risk of running out of time, or you rush to make it in a careless way.”

In addition to performing candy sculpture, the Tanakas have another goal: making amezaiku a well-known word and popularizing it as an art form.

“When we walk into an event, we still hear people say, ‘It’s the candy artist,’” Tanaka said. “When we begin to hear them say ‘It’s the amezaiku artist,’ I’ll know we succeeded.  At the events that we go to, we have a sign/menu that says ‘amezaiku’ and we do hear people saying it, trying to pronounce it, or people will ask us what this art is called in Japan.

“Our business cards no longer say ‘candy artist,’ but rather ‘amezaiku artists.’ Our emails and agreements are also slowly making the switch from using the phrase candy art to amezaiku art. So person by person, we are hopefully spreading the word, amezaiku.”

To bring my bunny home safely in one piece, my Japanese friends thoughtfully provided a 6-inch-long rectangular tin. Today the bunny peeks out from atop a cloisonné vase sitting on a sideboard buffet in my dining room. I have no intention of ever eating it, though I am curious about how well the tiny silica gel packet inside the plastic will help preserve my attempt at amezaiku. Two years on, except for the fading food coloring, it looks as fresh as the May day I made it.

Quick reference: Ame-Shin, 1-4-3 Imado, ground floor, Taito-ku, Tokyo; www.ame-shin.com (in Japanese, with some English). Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, except Thursdays. About $21 for the workshop to make an amezaiku bunny for adults, about $17 for students under 18. Since my Tokyo visit, a second location has been added: Tokyo Skytree Town Solamachi, 1-1-2 Oshiage, Sumida-ku, Tokyo. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. The first location displays but doesn’t sell amezaiku anymore, but the second one does.

Amezaiku Yoshihara, 1-23-5 Sendagi, Tomoe Building ground floor, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo; ame-yoshihara.com (Japanese only). Open noon-7 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. About $21 for the workshop. On the website under “demonstration,” a short video shows Takahiro Yoshihara making a blue Pegasus and a seated white bunny.

Candy Art Hawaii, candyarthawaii.com. Site also has a video demonstration.

“Candy” Miyuki’s website: http://www.mynameiscandy5.com

Takahiro Mizuki, amezaiku sculptor based in Tokyo, http://www.amezaiku.com; very colorful site with many pictures and background information, in several languages including English. He will “fly anywhere on the planet” to do a demonstration, for a price, of course.

In Nagasaki, Japan: Making mochi and watching penguins

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Four men take turns whacking a grainy mass of wet rice into shape in a parking lot in Nagasaki, Japan. They were prepping the rice so that it could be made into dough for mochi, a sweet bean-paste-filled snack.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Among the things I love about traveling in Japan is that you never know what’s just around the corner.

After the emotionally intense hours of visiting many of the 80-plus statues, monuments and museums dedicated to the bombing of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945  (see my previous post), I was looking for a polar-opposite activity.

Destination: the Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium.

I had a brochure about the aquarium that I had gotten at the tourist information center. The helpful woman there told me where the bus stop was and which bus to get on.

While waiting at the bus stop, I approached a woman and pointed at my brochure. I was in the right place, but several buses had come and gone, none displaying any English destination signage, so I was hesitant to board. She made sure that I got on the right bus.

This is another thing I love about the Japanese: their willingness to help intrepid solo travelers.

I showed the brochure to the driver to alert him to where I wanted to get off. I needn’t have worried about that because as we got closer to the aquarium, there were large signs advertising the attraction and I could see the coastline.

On the 30-minute ride out from the city center, I noted geometrically perfect, well-tended farmland juxtaposed with trim homes set into terraced, verdant hills.

When I disembarked, I ran into my kind of unexpected.

In a parking lot, four men, armed with old-fashioned, long-handled wooden mallets, were heartily thwacking in quick succession a white mass of short-grained glutinous rice nestled in a wide, deep gray stone bowl that was set into a steadying square wooden platform — think mortar and pestle on a grander scale.

Wallop after wallop, water flew from the dough, softening it, drying it and solidifying the grainy mass. The men were eager to convey their individual roles in the process, though this was accomplished more through pantomime than conversation.

Around their perimeter was an electric rice cooker, mounds of rice in half-moon straw baskets, buckets of water, several hoses and other implements — everything this team needed for rice dough production.

Though this activity was providing full-body exercise for the men, it had a purpose, too.

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Mochi-making starts with squeezing off a small round bit of dough between the thumb and index finger (woman at far left and man fourth from right).

Next to where they were working was a white-roofed, red-and-white-striped tent. I had to investigate, of course.

In production-line style, gloved and masked men and women were pinching off small, ball-size portions of rice dough, rolling it round and passing it to the next station, where floured hands were efficiently inserting sweet red bean paste and sealing the edges.

The puffy rounds were then set in precise rows into a floured tray to rest, awaiting their turn in a bamboo steamer.

Curiously, all the women were wearing aprons but the men were not.

I was busy taking photos — after asking permission — when one eager woman thrust a still-hot mochi, as the chewy rice cake is called, into my hand. I got out some yen coins as fast as I could and spread them in the palm of my hand because I had no idea how much they cost.

She immediately refused the money. “No, no,” she said. “Present.”

In a flash, she retrieved the mochi she’d just given me, scurried away, returned almost immediately with a second mochi, then packed them in a plastic bag.

I smiled, bowed respectfully, and slid the handles of the plastic bag over my wrist.

While I was watching the rice-pounding men, a woman who spoke English approached me. She told me that all the workers were getting their product ready for a small festival.

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These men are fanning the freshly steamed mochi to cool them before packaging for transport.

I surveyed the scene for a few minutes longer, then headed to the aquarium.

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These penguins on parade are mostly Humboldts. They’re found around Chile and Peru in South America.

I knew the antics of these black-and-white birds would make me laugh, but the kids I encountered, maybe 5 or 6 years old — dressed in orange-and-white T-shirts and shorts, with orange caps — gave the waddling birds a run for their money.

Their innocent faces were beaming with joy, especially when the kids flocked after the penguins on parade, from the building onto the beach and toward Tachibana Bay.

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What could be cuter than kids enthralled by penguins? These are the Humboldts that paraded out of the building.

The aquarium has nine of the world’s 18 penguin types: the king, gentoo, chinstrap, macaroni, rockhopper, Humboldt, jackass, Magellanic and little, which lives up to its name. The nocturnal little penguin, native to Australia and New Zealand, is the world’s smallest, weighing about 2.3 pounds and standing about 14 inches tall.

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The largest penguins at the Nagasaki aquarium are the kings. They have the distinctive red markings on their lower bill and can weigh up to 35 pounds.

At the other end of the spectrum, the king penguin, with red accents on its lower pointed bill, is almost 3 feet tall and weighs about 22 to 35 pounds.

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At feeding time, this group was raucous but relatively well-behaved as they waited for fish to be lobbed in their direction.

The aquarium has about 180 penguins, more than half born on the premises. Visitors are welcome to observe feeding time, pay extra to feed the birds themselves and view the outdoor pools where the penguins frolic and swim with speedy abandon.

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The Nagasaki Penguin Museum is about a half-hour ride by public bus from the central part of the city.

After a few hours of tuxedoed fun, I headed back to the bus stop. Alas, the mochi operation and all evidence of it had disappeared.

Quick reference: Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium, 3-16 Shuku-machi, Nagasaki City, Japan; penguin-aqua.jp/english

In Nagasaki, Japan: Ground zero, then and now

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This black pillar marks ground zero in Nagasaki, above which the second atomic bomb used against Japan in World War II exploded 71 years ago today. Concentric circles radiate out from the monument to illustrate how the blast reverberated.The colorful skeins of origami cranes symbolize hope.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Today, August 9, is the 71st anniversary of the detonation of the atomic bomb over Nagasaki, Japan. I traveled to Nagasaki in May 2014, visiting for five days and touring many sites connected to the catastrophic event. I also interviewed officials from several museums.

A young dark-haired boy is standing at attention. His untucked, soiled shirt, with three-quarter-length sleeves and front half-moon-shaped pocket, is slightly askew. It covers the top of his shorts, which end well above his knees. He is barefoot. His eyes stare straight ahead. He appears to be trying to keep his bottom lip from trembling.

Strapped to his back is a child, its eyes closed, upper body bent backward, with its head lolling to the older boy’s right.

Both are victims of the atomic bomb that was dropped from an American B-29 Superfortress on Aug. 9, 1945, in this city on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. Seventy-one years ago, this bomb, and the one that devastated Hiroshima three days earlier, helped bring about the end of World War II.

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U.S. Marine Joe O’Donnell took this photo of a boy bringing his baby brother to a temporary crematorium in the weeks after the Nagasaki bombing. It’s part of the display at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum. (Please ignore the reflection of the lights and exit sign.)

The Japanese boy is about 10, according to the reminiscences of Joe O’Donnell (1922-2007), a U.S. Marine photographer during World War II. O’Donnell called this image “A Boy Standing at a Crematory in Nagasaki, 1945.”

Crematories, some being on-the-spot makeshift creations, were the destination of many of the bodies of the 30,000 to 40,000 people who died instantly, those who succumbed in the ensuing days to the initial effects of the blast or in the weeks and months later who died of the ravages of radiation sickness. Japanese officials put the number of dead over this period at about 74,000, with about 75,000 injured.

“The boy stood there next to the oven for about 10 minutes,” O’Donnell told interviewer Seiko Ueda, years after he shot the black-and-white image, as recounted on the plaque next to the photo. “The men in white masks walked over to him and gently began undoing the cords that were holding the baby. Then I first realized that the baby was already dead.

“The infant’s body made a hissing sound as it was placed in the fire,” O’Donnell said. “Then it lit up in brilliant flames like a deep red of the setting sun. The boy stood there erect and motionless with his innocent cheeks shinning scarlet.”

O’Donnell realized that the boy was biting his lower lip so hard that it had begun to bleed.

This quietly poignant photograph encapsulated Nagasaki’s shocking new reality: death, duty, dignity.

The image and many others, make up the collection of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which delivers part history lesson, part powerful anti-nuclear message. It is impossible to be unmoved by the relentless pictures of charred and twisted bodies, of scorched and demolished buildings and of a desolate landscape where moments earlier residents were going about their daily business.

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On the ninth of every month, and on some special occasions, the Flame of Peace is lighted in Nagasaki. In 1983, the flame was brought from Mount Olympus in Greece, one of the very few instances that it has been used outside of the Olympics. The “torch” and the commemorative ceramic tiles on the wall behind it were erected in 1987.

The museum is but one of nearly 80 sites around Nagasaki, large and small, that in some way have a link to the events of Aug. 9 and thereafter. They range from the Flame of Peace taken from Mount Olympus in Greece and rekindled the ninth day of every month (and some special occasions) to cherry trees donated by the United States.

Nagasaki today, a bustling city with a population of about 430,000, according to its tourism bureau, is far more than its atomic bomb sights. It’s a major port, known for its shipyards — among the reasons it was targeted during the war — and a popular stop on cruise ship itineraries.

Many residents still make their livelihood fishing, as they have for generations. Sushi and sashimi don’t come much fresher or more reasonably priced. Subsidiaries of Sony and Canon both have facilities that make high-tech parts for digital cameras and other electronics.

Nagasaki, capital of Nagasaki Prefecture with a population of about 1.3 million, has a long history of contact with the West, even during the two centuries when nearly all of Japan was in a shogun-ordered, self-imposed cocoon.

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The scale model of Dejima shows how accessibility to the fan-shaped island was controlled. The Japanese isolated Dutch and Portuguese traders before the country fully opened to the West.

The Portuguese and Spanish arrived first, in the 16th century, bringing traders and missionaries. The Dutch came later, though like the Portuguese, were forced into isolation on a man-made, fan-shaped island known as Dejima, itself a worthwhile destination for the modern tourist. The Dutch brought not just goods (sugar was among the largest imports), but mind-expanding ideas about science, medicine and education.

The arrival of U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry and his small fleet at Edo Bay in 1853, signaled that Japan’s blinkers would soon be removed and the country would be awakening to the technological and political advances of the modern world.

On my fifth trip to Japan, I found, as always, everyone unfailingly polite, most citizens stylishly dressed (especially women in kimono) and curious enough about a solo Western traveler to strike up a conversation.

Streetcars, with their clanging bells and squeaky brakes, might remind riders of San Francisco. The inexpensive and widely used transportation delivers passengers to their destinations with typical Japanese efficiency. Stores are efficiently neat and well-stocked, with goods attractively displayed. Bathrooms are spotless. Restaurants and entertainment venues are plentiful and widespread. In other words, if you didn’t know what happened here, you’d think this was just another prosperous, historical city.

On that fateful day 71 years ago, Nagasaki, nestled in a winding valley and surrounded by mountains on three sides and its natural port to the west, was the secondary target. In the early morning hours, Bockscar, a specially modified B-29 under the command of Maj. Charles Sweeney, 25, left Tinian — the same Pacific island in the Marianas that the Enola Gay departed from on Aug. 6 for its mission to Hiroshima. The intended target was Kokura, about 100 miles west of the now uranium-bombed Hiroshima.

Sweeney had flown his regular plane, the Great Artiste, with instrument and observational support for the Hiroshima mission, but switched with Capt. Fred Bock for the Nagasaki assignment. Sweeney took off with an uncooperative pump in the reserve fuel tank, which post-bombing forced the B-29 to land in Okinawa before it could return to Tinian.

En route, the plane was delayed waiting to rendezvous with a photo aircraft. It circled three times over Kokura, at the northern tip of Kyushu, but haze and smoke from a previous firebombing raid over Yawata, to the north, made it impossible to hone in on the target.

About 90 minutes behind schedule, the decision was made to head southwest to Nagasaki, population about 240,000, where Mitsubishi had armament factories and shipyards. Under orders to make a visual siting of its target, the B-29 encountered low clouds. At nearly the last minute, bombardier Capt. Kermit Beahan caught a break in the clouds, and “Fat Man” was detonated about 1,650 feet over the northern part of Nagasaki, missing the city center and its busiest streets.

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“Fat Man” caused utter destruction at ground zero. It detonated at 11:02 a.m.

The fireball, radiating several million degrees of heat, morphed into a mushroom cloud that was estimated to have reached a height of 45,000 feet. The fires, blast wind and radiation wiped out an area of about 2.59 square miles and left an estimated 120,000 homeless. Of the dead, 70 percent were women, children and senior citizens.

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Nagasaki-born artist Naoki Tominaga’s sculpture reminds the world that 70 percent of the victims were women, children and senior citizens. This piece is directly across from the ground zero black pillar.

Northeast of the hypocenter, the bomb obliterated the neighborhood around the red-brick Urakami Cathedral, home to the largest concentration of Catholics in Japan. Up to 10,000 of its parishioners (out of about 16,000 living in the area) are estimated to have died.

Urakami Cathedral, at one time the largest church in Asia, was completed in 1925. Its Romanesque-style replica was rebuilt on the site in 1959.

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The geodesic dome of the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.

The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum opened in April 1996, tied (a bit late) to the 50th anniversary of the bombing. It cost in excess of 6 billion Japanese yen to build and took two years and four months to complete. The glass-and-steel domed circular structure and its surrounding gardens occupy land not far from the hypocenter. Beyond, all the most-visited monuments, sculptures and architectural remains are concentrated in an easily walkable area where the bomb did the most damage.

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Another view of the museum, which opened in 1996.

Officials say the museum is a vast improvement over the old six-story venue, which had limited exhibition space and shared quarters in a building that also played host to weddings, concerts and other gatherings.

“In making the new facility, we asked the architects to represent the international city of peace, of Nagasaki,” said Fumitada Hashi, deputy director of the museum, through interpreter Yayoi Minokawa. “The facility is a place to learn about the reality of atomic bombs, and about nuclear weapons, and a place for peace education.”

In its first year of operation, the museum drew more than 1.1 million visitors. In recent years, attendance has been on a largely roller-coaster decline, with 667,379 visitors in 2013, according to Hashi. He cites fewer people visiting Nagasaki and the economic downturn of the past several years for the drop in attendance. Since its opening, more than 14 million people have seen the displays, Hashi said.

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An interior view, and “A String of a Thousand Cranes” by Dutch artist Manna Ori.

Visitors reach the main exhibit by descending a spiral ramp to the bottom floor. Draped along the wall is “A String of a Thousand Cranes,” donated by a Dutch paper folding artist, Manna Ori, in 2010. The white origami cranes, a symbol of peace and hope, were crafted from one continuous 495-foot-long piece of paper.

In three sections, the museum tells the story of the world’s second atomic bomb. About 900 items in its 19,000-artifact collection are on display, according to Takashi Matsuo, director of the A-Bomb Heritage Section of the museum. Some have been contributed by survivors, residents or survivors’ families. Information is presented in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean.

The first section is dominated by black-and-white photographs that show how the city looked before Aug. 9. It also contains artifacts such as a badly damaged wall clock from a house about a half-mile from ground zero, its hands stuck at 11:02 a.m. — the moment of the explosion.

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A scientific explanation of the mechanics of “Fat Man” is posted next to the cut-away of the life-size replica.

The second section tells the story of the immediate aftermath. It features a full-size replica of the plutonium 239 bomb “Fat Man,” so nicknamed because of its wide girth. One side is cut away to reveal the interior, and a graphic explains how the bomb — equal to the explosive force of 21 kilotons of TNT — worked.

“When schoolchildren send letters of appreciation, they often mention the ‘Fat Man’ model,” Matsuo said. “They often comment that it’s much bigger than they thought.”

Other relics include tattered clothing, melted glass bottles, leaflets dropped by American bombers, a 14-year-old schoolgirl’s oval lunch box (the rice inside is charred), and a tribute to Dr. Takashi Nagai, an assistant professor at Nagasaki Medical College, who was injured while at the college hospital. Despite his condition (and having been diagnosed with leukemia before the bombing), he selflessly administer to others and later undertook studies about bomb-related diseases. He died in 1951.

Post-WWII nuclear weapons and the modern age are the focus of the third part of the exhibit. If visitors haven’t gotten the anti-nuclear message before now, this section really drives it home.

Matsuo said that on his artifact wish list is the acquisition of more photographs, particularly those taken by “the U.S. Army right after the bomb.” In fact, he said in 2013 he dispatched a co-worker to the U.S. National Archives in Maryland to have a look at its collection.

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At night, the basin shines with fiber-optic lights at Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims to commemorate those who died.

Directly across from the museum is the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, which opened in July 2003. Outside is a 29-meter-diameter water-filled basin, with 70,000 fiber-optic lights that are illuminated until 8 p.m. May to August, symbolizing close to the number of people who died, said Yuko Tahata, vice director of Peace Memorial Hall.

Six water basins and one waterfall are incorporated into the multilevel venue, “because in the blast, victims died begging for water,” Tahata said through interpreter Nagiko Yokoyama.

The library houses testimonies from 36,203 survivors assembled into two multivolume sets of books. Visitors can also use computers to see pictures and video of some of the victims giving their eye-witness accounts.

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At the far end of Remembrance Hall is a towering glass case with 163 volumes containing the names of every victim of the atomic bomb. One  volume is blank, paying tribute to those who could not be identified because they were vaporized at ground zero.

In the lower level, in a rectangular room elegant in its simplicity, is Remembrance Hall. At the end of two parallel rows of six towering, square glass pillars stands a glass case in which reside 163 volumes on 27 shelves. They contain the name of every victim of the atomic bomb, numbering 162,095 (12 are from Hiroshima, the rest from Nagasaki), as of Aug. 9, 2013. One volume is blank, Tahata said, honoring the unknown victims, people who could not be identified because they were vaporized at the hypocenter.

“They feel sad at the Atomic Bomb Museum,” Tahata said. “They come here, they can calm their mind and pray.”

More than 1 million people have visited the hall since its opening, she said.

The tops of the glass pillars jut out of the basin two floors above at ground level. They point in the direction of the hypocenter, a mere 825 feet away.

The hypocenter’s exact spot is marked by a square black monolith, fronted by a polished, coffin-like black structure. On the left-hand panel is the number 162,083, the total of Nagasaki’s loss as of mid 2014. At the base of this sits an origami-crane-draped rectangular black box. Microfilm containing the name of every victim is also stored here. Concentric circles emanate out from the pillar, indicating how the force of the blast spread in waves.

To the far right of the pillar are relocated ruins from the former Urakami Cathedral.

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Artist Seibo Kitamura said of his Peace Statue: “This statue was created as a signpost in the struggle for global harmony. … it conveys the profundity of knowledge and the beauty of health and virility.” Every year on Aug. 9, the ceremony marking the bombing, is held in the shadow of the statue in Peace Park.

The annual commemoration ceremony was held this morning in the shadow of the Peace Statue, a nearly 32-foot tall sculpture unveiled Aug. 8, 1955. The massive sculpture, by Japanese artist Seibo Kitamura, among the city’s most recognizable, is a symbol of hope and a prayer for lasting peace.

The seated figure points upward with the index finger of his right hand, indicating from where the horror fell, and a further warning of the nuclear threat. The other arm, outstretched to the side with its palm facing down, is meant to symbolize peace. The massive figure’s eyes look down, suggesting the appropriateness of a prayer in memory of those who died.

As in previous years, the program included the addition of the names of victims who have died in the past year (an average of 3,000, said Akinori Ogawa, who works for the city of Nagasaki), the release of doves of peace, songs performed by schoolchildren, and at precisely 11:02 a.m., a minute of silent prayer.

According to Nagasaki city government figures, the death toll as of today stands at 172,230.

Officials at the Atomic Bomb Museum don’t know the name of the young boy in O’Donnell’s photo, of if he survived to adulthood and beyond. The photograph was featured in a compilation of O’Donnell’s work, “Japan 1945: A U.S. Marine’s Photographs from Ground Zero,” released in the United States in 2005 and in Japan (under a different title) 10 years earlier.

Additional references: Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, 7-8 Hirano-machi, Nagasaki, nagasakipeace.jp

Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, 7-8 Hirano-machi; http://www.peace-nagasaki.go.jp

Peter Arnett, combat journalist

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Perhaps to publicize and capitalize on Peter Arnett’s reporting for CNN in 1991, this fuzzy, screen-grab image from Iraq was chosen as the cover for his 1994 book. Photo copyright 1991 Cable News Network

 

“Live From the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad, 35 Years in the World’s War Zones” by Peter Arnett (Simon & Schuster, 1994, $23)

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

Journalist Peter Arnett may be best known to viewers as one of the “Boys of Baghdad,” noted for his ground-breaking live reporting on CNN at the beginning of the Persian Gulf War in Iraq in 1991.

But long before he spoke into a microphone and stood in front of a television camera, he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning print journalist, having covered for more than a decade that most controversial of conflicts, the Vietnam War.

In fact, he was one of the few reporters to have literally seen it all in Vietnam. He was there in 1962, at a point when American military and more covert advisers were working with the South Vietnamese army and government, before the massive buildup of American military men and machinery. And he was there at the end, in April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon to the communists.

In between, as an unflinching reporter for The Associated Press, he repeatedly risked his life to bring to readers around the world what was really happening on the ground and in the air, as the death and casualty tolls skyrocketed and more than 58,000 American troops came home in body bags and coffins.

His rule was simple: If he didn’t witness it himself, he didn’t write it. He, and other reporters such as David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne and Neil Sheehan, were unwilling to accept at face value what the military briefers were disseminating to the press, the more “rosy” picture of how the war was progressing. While the Johnson administration’s generals were talking about a “light at the end of the tunnel,” Arnett’s courageous reporting was telling a vastly different story.

Not surprisingly, this adversarial approach made him less than popular with high-ranking brass, and even some of his own colleagues.

Vietnam War supporter Joseph Alsop, a syndicated columnist who visited the country only briefly several times and was escorted by government toadies (according to Arnett) to the sights they wanted him to see, once said to Arnett at a dinner party at Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker’s Saigon residence: “You’re the fellow who makes up the quotes, aren’t you?”

Understandably, this angered Arnett, who was poised and ready to punch Alsop before Bunker intervened.

The section about Vietnam runs for more than 230 pages, and comprises more than half the book.  It is the most vividly written, as Arnett re-creates his many dangerous forays into the Vietnamese countryside, on foot, via helicopter, jeep and private car, to cover battles big and small, sometimes with other reporters and photographers. He frequently uses full paragraphs and quotes from actual stories he filed to the AP throughout this part of the text.

More than once he’s accused of being un-American in his coverage, a comment that evokes a ready retort: “I’m from New Zealand.”

Arnett was born in 1934 in a small community called Riverton, one of the first whaling settlements, at the southern end of New Zealand’s south island. He grew up being regaled with seafaring tales, especially about the arrival of the English ship Eliza in 1834, on which his adventurous great-great-grandfather, James Leader, set out from Sussex.

Leader married a Maori woman, and many decades later, Arnett would cite his mixed heritage as one facet that led to an unsettled adolescence. Getting thrown out of boarding school — for dating a girl — didn’t help either.

Upon returning home, he joined his brother, already on staff, working as a reporter at a local newspaper. Despite long hours and poor pay, the teenager had not only found his calling, but entree into a much wider world.

Working his way up from small papers, Arnett’s ambition and restlessness eventually landed him in Thailand, then Laos and a job as a stringer for the AP. His coverage of a military coup in Laos — he had to swim the Mekong River with his copy, $200 and passport wedged between his teeth to get to Thailand to file his story — finally snagged him the prize of a full-time job with the AP. He was 25 years old.

His analysis critical of the policies of Indonesian President Sukarno got Arnett thrown out of Jakarta, setting up his posting to Vietnam, where AP Saigon bureau chief Mal Browne’s rigorous journalistic standards and leadership, to say nothing of his indispensable 24-page booklet, “A Guide to News Coverage in Vietnam,” completed Arnett’s transition into a powerful writer and throw-anything-at-me professional.

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Arnett, on assignment, somewhere in Vietnam. When he arrived in Saigon in 1962, AP bureau chief Malcolm Browne gave him a list of 24 items Arnett would need in the field, among them an air mattress, canned food, a jackknife and pistol (optional). Arnett says he purchased all his gear on the Saigon black market. Photo copyright The Associated Press

After Vietnam, a change in management at AP’s New York headquarters and a hard-earned war-weariness drove Arnett to try journalism from a different angle. He joined the fledging Cable News Network in 1981, when Ted Turner’s Atlanta-based upstart was short on name-recognition reporting talent and funds. Or as Arnett puts it, “a runty communications organization with big ambitions and a small audience,” cable operations being in their infancy.

Within 10 years, CNN had come of age, helped in no small part by Arnett’s unparalleled reporting from Iraq, complemented by Bernard Shaw and John Holliman, the other “Boys of Baghdad.” At one point, Arnett was one of the few journalists left in the city being bombed by coalition forces, and the only one with a new-fangled satellite telephone that allowed him to continue to file stories. He also scored an exclusive 90-minute interview with Saddam Hussein.

His coverage drew a firestorm of criticism — he was called a “propaganda mouthpiece” and worse — but CNN stood by Arnett, as bosses had repeatedly done following his reporting from Vietnam.

The book ends in 1994, with Arnett interviewing the leaders of competing factions in a vigorous power struggle in Afghanistan, after the invading Soviets had abandoned what some refer to as their Vietnam.

The adrenaline-high years in Vietnam would continue to affect Arnett for decades to come. There was always one more war to cover, by his count, a total of 17 over 30 years, one more story to tell. (His career continued long after the book’s publication.)

As a freelance reporter in March 1997, Arnett was the first Westerner to interview Osama bin Laden. In 2003, during the second Gulf War, he gave an interview to state-run Iraqi TV, in which he said the America plan had failed. NBC and National Geographic, for whom he was working, fired him. He was immediately hired by Britain’s Daily Mirror. Other affiliations and opportunities would follow. He retired in 2007.

Today, Arnett, 81, lives in suburban Los Angeles, California.