Patriotism on a Plate
We braved 80 hours of travel, and each other, to bring some down-home Dallas cooking to U.S. soldiers stationed in Uzbekistan.
Patriotism on a Plate
OVER THE COURSE OF our mission, I traveled halfway around the world to the desolate Shaomali plains of Afghanistan, hunkered in a hut 2 miles from enemy forces, and tiptoed around landmines, but at no time during Operation Well Done did I fear for my life more than the day I raced down Royal Lane at 100 mph in a car driven by Harvey Gough. We were headed to Owens International Air at D/FW Airport to finalize the paperwork on the 10,000 pounds of food that had been gathered to ship to an airbase in Uzbekistan. Good Lord willing and the Taliban don’t rise, we would cook a down-home meal for 2,000 soldiers at an airbase outside of Karshi, Uzbekistan. Operation Well Done
was going without a hitch. Then Harvey’s cell phone rang.
Gene Street, one of the mission members and one of Dallas’ best-known restaurateurs,
has known Harvey for more than 30 years. He was at the loading dock and called to let us know we were late. "Harvey, you guys better hurry. We’ve got reporters out here waiting for Nancy."
Harvey’s jaw quivered. If looks could kill, I was dead. And if looks couldn’t do it, maybe his driving would. He hit the brakes and jerked the car to a halt.
"Gawdamnit, Queenie," he screamed. "If one camera points at me, you’re on a one-way ticket."
The camera crews came because, per Harvey’s instructions, I had alerted the media to our mission. But for reasons that would take a team of psychoanalysts to decipher, now Harvey didn’t want any attention.
In fact, Harvey, perhaps Dallas’ most pathological patriot, has always been allergic to the media’s attempts to learn about the man who has kicked out or otherwise insulted diners for 52 years from behind the counter at his Goff’s Hamburger Restaurant on Lovers Lane.
Harvey was about to kick me out of the car. He threw his cell phone against the console of his white Buick Riviera and let me have it. "Queenie, stop this f---ing media circus right now," he said, spitting as he talked. He refused to take me to the site. I tried to explain that he had asked me to send out a press release to announce our venture, and, hence, we were obliged to indulge the media. "Well I’m changing the rules right now," he said. "I want those pukes gone or I’m not going. What have they done for their country today? Nothing! They’re just feeding off of us."
It was hardly the share-the-love spirit that launched our endeavor. The insanity began in late October when Harvey, Gene, and restaurant designer Fred Merrill were sitting around a table at III Forks, and Harvey pitched his idea to feed the troops. So the call went out to friends and vendors. Gene enlisted Rhett Stein, a bail bondsman who paid for the steaks; and Steve Hartnett, a successful futures trader, real estate developer, and owner of more than 200 restaurants. And Gene got me involved—the Desert Queen or, if Harvey was in a mood, Media Puke.
Harvey chose longtime customer Rob Holmes, who was decorated with the Bronze Star during Operation Desert Storm; longtime friend and retired Army Colonel Michael Shaler; and his air-conditioning repairman, Tony Booth, owner of Booth Mechanical. Rounding out our eclectic team was the funniest baker in town and owner of Empire Baking Company, Robert Ozarow.
From the get-go, Harvey was our fearless leader, mainly because we all feared him. You either love him or hate him. I’d never met Harvey, and he told Gene that if I wanted to go on the trip, I’d have to interview with him at Goff’s.
As I walked past the 10-foot bronze painted statue of Lenin that sits in front of his restaurant, I could see him glaring at me from behind the cash register. "What do you want?" he said as I opened the door.
"I’ll have a number two, melt the cheese," I said. "And take me to Uzbekistan."
The shredded cheddar was cold. Our madcap courtship had begun.
Making plans with Harvey is like playing a tight match in the finals at Wimbledon. Every point is crucial and intense. He doesn’t like surprises, and he delights in being in control. My competitive juices flowed early in our game. Initially, I was smitten by his intensity that was combined with an underlying heart of gold. Later, that same intensity would lead me to wonder if he had a heart at all.
Harvey gave me the nod, and two weeks later the enlisted clan met at Goff’s for our first briefing. Harvey told us he’s been in contact with U.S. Central Command in Florida, the nerve center for America’s operations in Southwest Asia. He’d spent 32 years in the National Guard, and he’d thrown around the name of a longtime friend he’d met in the mid-’80s at Fort Hood—one General Tommy R. Franks, currently the commander-in-chief of CentCom and Operation Enduring Freedom. Actions were proceeding, but as the date neared, Harvey was frustrated by CentCom’s bureaucracy, taking any "no" as a challenge, not a final answer. He went over, under, and around anyone who refused to bend to his will.
Harvey’s wrath ended up directed at Navy Lieutenant Lee Thrush, who was appointed to be our escort. Possessed with a mission, Harvey bumped around CentCom and eventually surpassed the chain of command at their own game by using his personal contacts in the military to help pave our way. "Hooah Hooah!!!" exclaimed one of Harvey’s daily e-mail updates. "These guys down here can’t get anything going!!! But I got everything we need!!! You just have to know the right person with the correct knowledge to make it work! Next problem?"
As Harvey circled the streets around D/FW, still fuming, I began to second-guess my decision to go. Obviously, Harvey now saw me as a problem, and our complicated relationship would not get easier. Before we left for Uzbekistan, I had already met the enemy. It was us.
"WELCOME TO AFGHANISTAN," the pilot deadpanned as the C-17 cargo plane startled to a halt on the runway. "Please exit the rear of the plane and stay on the tarmac to avoid active landmines."
It was 2:30 a.m. and 20 degrees. I deplaned at Bagram Airbase, 27 miles north of Kabul, surrounded by a mosh pit of soldiers marching off to war. With enemy forces only 2 miles away, everything proceeded in total darkness. No lights on the runway. None on the plane. None from the buildings that I knew were out there, somewhere. My sense of reason had been rearranged by 30 hours of sleepless travel.
I worked my way out of the back of the plane, down the steel ramp, toward a black hole and looked to the sky for perspective. George Lucas couldn’t have produced a more chilling special effect: a shooting star sliced across the sky. No one spoke. There was only the sound of marching boots and rattling M-16s. My heavy camera bag hung off my left shoulder and, like an idiot, I was attempting to drag a rolling suitcase across the rocky terrain.
I tried to focus on the phosphorescent blue strips strapped to the shoes and shoulders of the ground crew, but the lights danced around me like neon fireflies. Suddenly I slipped on a rock and was in free fall. The soldier behind me misjudged the direction I was headed—as he reached to break my fall, he instead slammed me to the ground.
Our layover in Afghanistan was a four-hour lesson in advanced warfare, both in body and mind. Bleary-eyed, we sat in the sparse holding room with soldiers waiting (the primary pastime in the military). We were waiting for the next leg of our trip—in all we would travel more than 80 grueling hours for our two and a half days in Uzbekistan. The soldiers were waiting to be slated to the next base assignment. Under the unrelenting fluorescent lights, Steve Hartnett and I started a conversation with Major Weinert, the commander of the base’s bomb disposal unit. Sharing a box of fried chicken that Harvey (the ultimate planner) had schlepped from our first stop, Rhinemein Airbase in Frankfurt, Germany, Weinert explained that Bagram was built by the Soviets as part of the Cold War aid package for Afghanistan in 1976. When the Soviets invaded three years later, they made Bagram their main base. Last fall the Northern Alliance battled Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters for control of the base—a key strategic victory for us in the war against terrorism. "When the Soviets pulled out, they left a hell of a mess," he said. "Our squad has defused over 420 bombs. It took months to clear the broken-down tanks off the runway. There are still landmines everywhere."
Fifteen minutes after we flew out, Bagram Airbase took on enemy fire.
Our landing at K-2 Airbase, the most important logistical base in the war theater, was less intense, but just as chaotic. Surprisingly, Harvey wasn’t the first of us to ruffle feathers. The sun was up, it was 18 degrees, and in his excitement, the team baker, Robert Ozarow, seized the Kodak moment. He immediately found himself surrounded by the Uzbek ground crew, who demanded his camera. Our base liaison, Sergeant Anne Gustafson, smoothed the situation and briefed us on the heightened security rules—no photos of planes, Special Forces soldiers, or buildings under construction.
After our minor scuffle, we were treated like rock stars (although I fancied myself a Joey Heatherton come to entertain the troops) and were escorted to our trailers—the top digs on the base, constructed from recycled freight containers. The eight men were crammed into three 8-by-8-foot rooms with bunks, and I was led to a double room that I shared with Elizabeth Hall, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers electrical engineer. Lt. Thrush looked like he’d been sentenced to life in prison when he learned that he was Harvey’s roommate. From that moment on, Thrush was never without his notebook, obviously compiling a dossier on Harvey.
The troops at K-2 have re-created all the pleasures of home to the best of their abilities. "You gotta see our Texas hooch," said our camp tour guides, Staff Sergeant Larry Montoya and Sergeant First Class Johnny Ornelas, both from San Antonio, referring to their tent filled with CD and DVD players. A cluster of Texans lived behind a "Haleville, Population 60" sign. We strolled rows of canvas shelters lined the dusty dirt roads, checking out the elaborate entryways decorated to reflect the personalities inside. A band of Detroit hockey fans lived behind a red Hockeytown door. Another tent had a cartoon depicting rats with a circle and a slash, chronicling the number of rodents killed inside. Yet another one bragged, "Guns don’t kill people, we do."
We toured the game room, movie tent, and headquarters, passing earth-covered hangars originally built by the Russians during the second world war. From behind a cement wall wrapped with razor wire, the rat-a-tat of automatic weapons from the Special Forces firing range filled the air. Just outside the camp, huge heaps of contaminated soil sat in cone-shaped piles waiting for disposal. Atop the berm that ran around the perimeter of camp, we stood next to a guard shack that overlooked a frozen canal separating us from the adjacent Uzbek base. "Don’t drink the water if it’s glowing," a passing soldier joked. Sgt. Gustafson didn’t laugh.
But there’s more to Uzbekistan than a makeshift homes and contaminated water, which is why Harvey disappeared that afternoon to make arrangements for us to travel off base into the ancient city of Samarkand. Harvey seemed to think permission to visit was a done deal—a right, not a privilege—but the rest of us weren’t so sure. As we waited for the go-ahead, we crammed into Robert Ozarow and Steve Hartnett’s room. Jet lag took over, and between Robert’s dirty jokes and the rest of the guys mixing their Metamucil in water bottles cut in half with a pocketknife (after all, this wasn’t a luxury hotel), we turned into blithering idiots. We laughed so hard and long that we almost forgot about our drive to Samarkand, when Sgt. Gustafson appeared with the bad news. The next day was the last day of Ramadan. In Uzbekistan, which is predominantly Muslim, it would be like nickel beer night at a minor-league hockey game. "It’s too risky," she claimed. "The Army has everything to lose by letting you go."
We weren’t surprised, but Harvey was unnerved. "You nervous nellies don’t know s---," he said. "I’ve got it all arranged. Be ready at 0800 hours." Here was the Harvey I admired—the guy with the loving heart and the power to get things done.
But then he turned into the 9-year-old bully he can be. He cocked his right arm, and with the speed and accuracy of Roger Clemens, Harvey hurled a frozen steak that hit me smack in the cheek. I still don’t know why he did it. The flying filet hit me so hard that my stud earring came out the back of my ear. I picked up the steak and fired back, missing him by inches. Advantage Harvey. He disappeared into the night.
All was not forgiven and certainly not forgotten the next day, at 0600 hours, when I opened the door into the frosty morning to find Harvey spit-shining his boots. "Sorry about that," he said lightly. "I didn’t mean to hit you in the face." As though his aim were an excuse for his actions.
Before long the shuttle arrived to take us to a taxi stand in the nearby town of Karshi for our trip to Samarkand. The rest of the day, Harvey was the consummate tour guide. The 2,500-year-old city was once home to Alexander the Great; Marco Polo; Genghis Kahn; Tamerlane, the last nomadic emperor to shake Central Asia; and, for one fantastic day, it was home to Harvey Gough.
After crossing 100 miles of frozen tundra, passing herds of sheep and camels, and dodging foot and donkey traffic, we found ourselves at the Registan. The heart of Samarkand was completed in the early 1300s and is today, as it was then, the city’s central marketplace. Beneath the fluted domes of the mosque, we shopped with the voraciousness of an alcoholic gone off the wagon. Harvey sat in a rug shop sipping green tea and argued prices with the owner. The rest of us picked up gold-embroidered silk scarves, jackets, and local art. Like a kid in a candy store, Harvey, loaded down with two antique samavars, rugs, black-market caviar, and a traditional Russian fur ushanka cap, was all smiles. Wherever he goes, Harvey is in his element.
ON SATURDAY, DECEMBER 7—PEARL Harbor Day—base commander Colonel Jon Miller, a former Plano resident, and I stood on the tarmac, looking into the bright sun, searching the horizon for a plane. At Harvey’s invitation, the ambassador of Uzbekistan, John Herbst, and other military dignitaries were due any minute to join us for Goff burgers and steaks. Harvey was off to the side, bragging to two security guards about the trip to Samarkand he pulled off the day before.
After the requisite photo-ops in front of the K-2 sign, we headed to the mess hall, where the tables were set with Texas flags and silk bluebonnets. A huge flag hung over the 55-gallon grills outside, where the rest of Operation Well Done cooked steaks. Dallas companies and patrons had donated two palates of food: 2,000 filets, 2,000 pounds of fresh fruit from the Red Barn at the Farmers Market, Häagen Dazs ice cream from Nestlé Ice Cream in Garland, cole slaw from American Food Service, assorted pies and Mexican food from Ben E. Keith, jalapeño cheese bread from Empire Baking Company, and fruitcakes from the Collin Street Bakery. The usual Beef Yakimoto, stewed pot roast, and smothered chicken were off the menu for at least one night.
Harvey donned a camouflage toque and went into his Grumpy Goff mode—flipping burgers, slathering his special sauces on buns, and tucking the finished product in wax paper Goff’s pouches. Tony, Rhett, Robert, and Rob labored over the hot flames, too. Gene, Michael, and Steve chatted with the ambassador and begged for stock market updates. I spent time taking pictures of everyone except Harvey, who refused to look at me. Maybe he didn’t want to see my bruised cheek, which was layered with MAC W25 full-coverage foundation.
With the aid of a competent KP crew (this is the Army) and their boss Israel Robinson, the meal came together flawlessly. At one point, Colonel Miller stood up from the head table and our group fanned out around him. He made a brief speech outlining America’s dedication to fight for independence and to abolish terrorism and admitted that there is no romance or fun associated with combat. "It is a wonderful feeling to know that civilians would risk their lives to bring a ray of happiness to the soldiers of K-2," he said. The room burst into applause.
Harvey accepted a flag and a plaque noting his outstanding service to the military. We each received a brass commander’s coin of excellence for our "loyalty, honor, integrity, and personal courage." With a tear in his eye, Harvey spoke. It was the nice Harvey, the tender Harvey, the Harvey who stops at nothing to do what he thinks is right. "Our goal was to come over here and do whatever necessary to take care of our soldiers. Americans can sleep soundly knowing that we have proud, dedicated soldiers defending our freedom," he said. "As far as I’m concerned, our mission has been accomplished."
THREE DAYS LATER, BACK IN DALLAS, the whole thing felt like a dream. And I wish I could report that the experience formed bonds between everyone in Operation Well Done. But that’s not true. Harvey called Gene a media hog for giving an interview to WB33 when we landed, and Robert Ozarow hasn’t spoken to Harvey since he tossed the filet at me. For a while Harvey and I were at odds over media coverage. According to him, I’d done very little right on the trip.
Then, one day, I got a call. "Hey, Queenie. Come on by for lunch," he said. "I’ll melt your cheese."
When I showed up at Goff’s, Harvey was sitting at a round, red, laminated table with former Governor Bill Clements. "Tell Uncle Billy about our trip," Harvey said as he showed a handful of photos to me.
As Governor Clements looked through the pictures, he uttered, "This crazy guy sure knows how to get things done."