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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2002-12-10

Six Degrees of Buzkashi
By Jack Gruber, USA TODAY

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

The Afghan traditional sport of Buzkashi played in Kabul in Ghazni Stadium. Exclusively Afghan, Buzkashi as it is played today. The tradition goes back as far as time of Alexander the Genghis Khan.
Everyone knows about the "Six degrees of Kevin Bacon", right?

The entire last month and a half has been "Six degrees of Buzkashi" for me.

What is buzkashi? Just a friendly game involving a decapitated goat and a lot of angry horses being ridden by Afghanistan's finest athletes. Sound like fun? Obviously -- you are not the goat.

The game kind of reminded me of a cross between the Oakland Raiders fan 'black hole' endzone mayhem and the Super Bowl post-game photographer scrum at mid-field -- all battling for that most-cherished John Elway jube picture.

But wait. It is usually best to start a story at the beginning…

I am somewhere over the Midwest flying in a B-52 at 35,000 feet with the Air Force Reserve 93rd Bomb Squadron from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. The crew, after just finishing with their delivery of simulated death from above, was ready to get down to some serious business. Dinner. Chicken box lunches and, of course, tunes.

A call goes out over the intercom. Any and all musical requests are now being taken. The flight's command pilot (call-sign "Cowboy" -- an Air Force Reserve deputy commander / full-time UPS long haul pilot / part time cattle rancher from east-Texas) pipes in.

"Play some of that 'No Shoes Guy's' stuff we were listening to when we were dropping bombs all over Afghanistan."

So sitting in the darkness over Somewhere, USA, country music artist and occasional bad-ass Kenny Chesney starts whaling away. His "No Shirt, No Shoes" album fills every helmet headset aboard this B-52 via a pretty kick ass sound system.

DEGREE 1
This is pretty bizarre. Just before I got dragged screaming and yelling on board this older-than-dirt bombing machine (which contains only a tube for a toilet) for a 6-8 hour training mission seeking out simulated Evil-Doers over middle-America, I was on the phone with editors at my paper who were telling me about my next assignment: A behind the scenes thing with Country Music Association artist of the year nominee Kenny Chesney.

So as we are flying along through the pitch-black night sky playing tag with a KC-135 refueling aircraft (which is close enough that the tanker should have a bumper sticker displaying the words "If you are close enough to read this, don't screw-up") as it pumped fuel into the B-52's tanks, we are eating fried chicken and Doritos in the cockpit.

Photo by Jack Gruber/Day in the Life of the Military

Photo by Jack Gruber/Day in the Life of the Military

Eating Doritos in the cockpit in a B-52
Twenty minutes earlier, the crew was on a simulated bombing run over Kansas and now, all they can talk about, is how cool it must be to be country music star Kenny Chesney.

Pass me a moist towelette.

DEGREE 2
A few days later, while riding through Nashville in a pickup truck being piloted by Kenny Chesney, we are laughing at the stuff coming out of the truck's stereo system. A tape that sounded like a country version of the Jerky Boys - crank phone calls - with one of the gags being someone calling UPS about getting a wrong shipment of grits or something.

The mention of UPS triggers my memory, so I tell Kenny that the UPS / Air Force Reserve pilot spoke of how they listened to his "No Shirt, No Shoes" CD while they were dropping non-simulated bombs over Afghanistan, and how they were all big fans of his music and had wanted me to invite him down to Barksdale for a ride.

Without skipping a beat, Chesney looked over and said, "Man, I don't know how good that would be. I get sick on a merry-go-round."

At this point I decided not to mention the delicious in-flight fried chicken meal he would be missing, for fear that he would have hurled his just-consumed protein shake all over the windshield.

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

Joyriding with Kenny Chesney.
While I was out joyriding with Kenny Chesney, the Nashville Sheraton boots me out of my room because they thought I already checked out - the cleaning person saw no luggage in the room. The luggage was "lost" (or should I say "misplaced") in the Sheraton bell stand's luggage locker for 15 hours (I'll spare you the long and painful story, complete with details on one nasty Sheraton "How Did We Do" survey response form.)

I have one day to make it back to San Francisco and pack for an extended project that has just been assigned to me. I am heading to Afghanistan.

DEGREE 3
I check my email at the Nashville airport and get a response from UPS / Air Force Reserve B-52 pilot "Cowboy" responding to a message I sent thanking him for the ride. I told him I was heading over to Afghanistan myself.

His brief reply: "Stay out from under those B-52's".

Turns out Afghanistan is not all that bad. Actually it is a lot like Northern California this time of year. Snow covered mountains, really bad traffic, rolling black outs-Kabul's blackouts last for four days instead of the four hours in San Francisco. And earthquakes. For the first week, I thought Kabul was experiencing major seismic disturbances just like San Francisco. It turns out it was just ordinance demolition teams blowing up recovered mines and rockets each morning out by the airport.

While in Afghanistan, the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan was in full swing and the Fast of Ramadan was making me a little homesick for the upcoming Thanksgiving holidays. (It may have been hallucinations brought on by not being able to eat or drink during daylight hours each day during the month of Ramadan.)

Man, a turkey sandwich sure sounded good.

Worse than not being allowed to eat from sun up to sun down was the fact that during Ramadan there is no playing of buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan. I came all this way, and there would be no buzkashi clip-contest entry from me. But hey, I survived a Barry Sanders early retirement, a baseball strike, a hockey lock out, and shooting the 2001 World Series from behind a pole, so I accepted this and was prepared to move on.

Photo by Jack Gruber/Day in the Life of the US Military/Harper Collins

Photo by Jack Gruber/Day in the Life of the US Military/Harper Collins

A B-52 in flight.
But as it turns out, I was in luck. On the Friday before I was suppose to head back to the land that invented the 24/7 all-you-can-eat buffet, our driver, Dost, ('known by all drivers and friend of all gunmen' -- really, that is his catch phrase expression for himself) points at a passing ox in the street outside of my hotel and makes a little horse noise. Dost speaks zero English. I speak zero Dari. Yet, almost magically, I am able to translate.

"Buzkashi!"

DEGREE 4
The Afghan traditional sport of buzkashi, which literally translated means "goat grabbing," is the national sport of Afghanistan. With its popularity similar to that of the WWF in the U.S., it may not be the NFL but it has its moments.

Luckily for me, a big-time buzkashi event was put together at the last minute for a number of foreign embassies and aid organizations who have boatloads of cash to pump into the local economies.

Buzkashi is basically this: A headless carcass of an unlucky goat or calf placed in the center of a circle in a big arena, surrounded by players on two opposing teams who, on horseback, ride around trying to grab the goat or calf while simultaneously beating the crap out of each other. All this while pursuing (or being pursued) around a distant post like a really good episode of COPS. The chapandaz (rider) tries to hold on to the "tenderized" goat carcass long enough to dropping it back in the circle where the melee began. And that's it. Simple but entertaining… unless you are the goat.

Lots of betting and wagering go on to make things "interesting." Prizes vary for different goat grabbing heats. Sometimes a wagon full of old Afghani 10,000 notes (worth about $3.50 US) are wheeled out into the ring. All the riders basically sit back and think about all the food and smokes they can't have because it is Ramadan and watch as a 85-year-old senior tour buzkashi rider wheelchairs his donkey down the length of the stadium untouched. Small potatoes.

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

The Afghan traditional sport of Buzkashi played in Kabul in Ghazni Stadium.
But when the French Embassy consul general pledges the sum of $100 US, the action giddy's up.

You know, carrying around $100 U.S. worth of old Afghani currency (called Afs or Afghanis) really makes you feel a bit unnerved. It is like you just robbed a bank and are making a get-away carrying bags full of this money fully expecting the hidden dye-pack to explode at any moment as you stuff the overflowing Afs in all conceivable pockets, in your shoes, your underwear and under your hat.

The professional riders (the ones wearing Soviet style tank commander helmets and padded socks as protective hand gear) ride into action. This is where the pro-buzkashi riders are similar to their counterparts in the NFL - when you start talking serious cash. I will bet none of these guys have ever seen the movie Jerry McGwire, but I could almost swear they were yelling the Dari a version of, "Show me the money!"

There must be referees somewhere but they basically hang out with the needle and thread in case the headless carcass needs a quick stitching-up. The goat gets yanked, kicked, stepped on, tossed, beaten and finally dropped into the ring. Eventually being trampled and tenderized into a pretty decent goat chop that could be served up later with rice and yogurt.

The whole tradition goes back to the days of Genghis Khan. Mongol horsemen were very sneaky and would advance swiftly on enemy campsites and, without dismounting, swoop up sheep, goats and other pillage at full gallop. In retaliation, the inhabitants of northern Afghanistan established a mounted defense against these raids and this practice is the direct forebearer of today's buzkashi.

Pretty much the same story on how major league baseball came up with collective bargaining.

DEGREE 5
But what is really scary is how everything is somehow linked in this tale of "Six degrees of buzkashi."

For example: Kenny Chesney's much-publicized stealing of a cop's horse in Minnesota. As it turns out, He and buddy Tim McGraw were just practicing for their next careers as professional buzkashi jocks and the upcoming buzkashi season. Really!

Unfortunately, my post-game buzkashi plan of getting back to San Francisco so I could spend my first Thanksgiving holiday as a married man with my lovely wife Amy were put on hold.

Sports Shooter guru Bert Hanashiro informed my buzkashi playing partner/roommate Grover Sanschagrin who then let me know via the SportsShooter.com satellite that I was being diverted via an Ariana Afghan national airlines flight to Bahrain for my next assignment: a few days aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

At least I would get to spend Thanksgiving on some sort of U.S. soil which in reality was a flight deck of an aircraft carrier patrolling in the Persian Gulf but with the bonus of getting to watch fighter planes coming and going off the ship.

Landing on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier at sea may seem a little daunting but it was a lot like a landing by an Afghan Ariana Airlines flight. Flying along fine and dandy and suddenly jolting to an immediate back-breaking stop. I am just kidding… the carrier landing was nothing like the Ariana landings … the carrier landing was smooth.

But tragedy struck. As it turns out, flight operations were suspended on the carrier for a few days as the US Army's top dog on the war on terrorism 4-star General Tommie Franks shows up on the Abraham Lincoln complete with Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, Wayne Newton, and country music singer Neal McCoy along with comedian Paul Rodriguez and a group of roadies led by a man the crew quickly nicknamed "The Quaker Oats Guy" because of his uncanny resemblance to actor/oats pitchman Wilfred Brimley.

As it turned out, on the flight out to the carrier, "Quaker Oats Guy" forgot to bring some key sound equipment and everyone was running around the ship like Michael Keaton in 'Mr. Mom' yelling "220, 221, whatever it takes." I was pretty sure "Quaker Oats Guy" was really the Tommy Lee Jones character from that classic Steven Seagal movie "Under Siege" where a nearly naked Erika Eleniak (former Baywatcher beach slow motion running lifeguard) jumps out of a cake while planning an overthrow of the warship.

I really thought I was going to get to witness the same thing on board the Abraham Lincoln but with Wayne Newton REALLY playing the bad guy. Don't under-estimate Mr. Danke Schoen. Wayne is that powerful!

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

You just can't get too much of Buzkashi.
But to kick this story up another notch (BAMM!), it turns out that during the USO performance where Tommie Franks and Wayne Newton actually sang Danke Schoen together with the help of the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, Franks made a few comments to the assembled crew of the Abraham Lincoln on the flight deck stage about the Iraqi situation and what he would say to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein if he had the opportunity. Not QUOTING the General directly but he basically said he would tell the Iraqi dictator to show some affection to a certain rear area the General controls.

All of this was very funny and quite quotable for the story our reporter was working on. However, the Admiral of the carrier group was not too amused and even less happy about a couple of guys from USA Today on board writing a story on the gearing up for possible war with Iraq.

A few hours later, well after Wayne was flown off the ship with the cheerleaders and Franks, and moments from transmitting the story off the ship, we sat nervously in a below decks office with the Admiral's chief of staff who was making some very serious threats about us not getting off this boat any time too soon if "those quotes" made by the General made it into the reporters story.

My Thanksgiving cheer was suddenly evaporating away. A compromise was made and with the quick help of a really great Senior Chief PAO, both the reporter and I were aboard an early morning C-2 COD flight launched off the carrier's deck and, hopefully, we would be able to transit through Bahrain, Dubai, Frankfort and finally home in time for Thanksgiving in San Francisco.

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

Photo by Jack Gruber/USA Today

(ABOARD THE USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) in the Persian Gulf)-- A F/A-18C Hornet makes a nighttime carrier landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln-America's fifth Nimitz-class aircraft carrier)
But wait. After getting catapulted off the deck and instantly into flight, the starboard side of the COD suddenly becomes very silent. Engine fire indicators go off and the crew has to shut down the engine. "No problem," the crew tells those of us still strapped backwards and not moving an inch -- waiting for our stomachs (and breakfast) to catch up with us following the catapult launch off the deck of the Abraham Lincoln.

We still have one engine left and there shouldn't be any problems… unless, of course, they happen to lose the port side engine. So we would continue to head for Bahrain and hopefully make an emergency landing.

DEGREE 6
Everything worked out just fine. Made it back late in the afternoon on Thanksgiving to my wife, and a wonderful Turkey dinner complete with goat chops and a little dinner music -- a few tunes off Kenny Chesney's "No Shirt, No Shoes" album.

Later with a little case of jet lag and unable to sleep, I settled in to do a little web browsing and noticed a story had just moved on the AP wires about how American troops came under fire in Afghanistan and had to call in close air support from a B-52 which saved the day by dropping weapons on some battling war lords.

Watch your pawkuls, fellas.

(Jack Gruber is a staff photographer with USA TODAY based in San Francisco. His travels for "The Nation's Newspaper" have also taken him to Israel, Australia and Japan. You can view his work on SportsShooter.com using the link at the bottom of this page.)

Related Links:
Gruber's member gallery
USA Today story: Afghans revive 'buzkashi'

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