Comedian Theo Von’s journey to Guantanamo Bay

By | September 27, 2011 at 1:29 pm | One comment | feature slider, Opinion | Tags: , , , ,

I left Los Angeles at 11 pm. Twenty hours later I am sitting here in Fort Lauderdale, at an upscale gas station waiting for the 180-minute plane ride to Guantanamo Naval Base. Myself and three other comedians were told we’d leave at noon. It’s 8:55 pm and a man named Ramon, who is supposed to pilot us there, has allegedly just landed. I have yet to see him.

It’s been a long day. I’ve been waiting for Ramon, or any military airman to tell me it’s time to go. Out of L.A. I sat next to a writer, producer, actor, weed grower, dancer who had dyed his hair and beard two different colors. I said “Hello.” And he talked for three hours.

At an eight a.m. layover in Atlanta I had an $11 dollar burrito that made me question the line of work I’m in. How is a burrito $11? Is the price of pico de gallo going up? I envisioned myself drilling for pico de gallo in Mexico, and when I hit it, piping it into every burrito joint at $5 a gallon. I would have made a great pico driller. “I DRINK YOUR MILK SHAKE,” I would tell the other de gallo farmers.

At 10 am I got to Ft. Lauderdale. I am still here. I’ve wandered around this hangar/fancy gas station like a fly; gawked at the autographed photos of famed visitors John Elway, Anna Kournikova and Bruce Springsteen and heard the stories behind each. I’ve used the free WiFi, and eaten so much free popcorn that I should be given the stripes of a Kernel. I’ve seen so many men come through in flight jackets, it’s like I’m watching Top Gun outtakes. I’ve done all a man can do at an upscale aeronautical fuel stand. I want GITMO.

I’ve been waiting; and not just today. For three months I’ve known I was going to Guantanamo Bay to perform stand-up for the U.S. military stationed there. When I found out, my brain got hard. Erection hard. Like it couldn’t wait to fuck my future. I may as well have found out I was going to Narnia, Wonka’s world, or Atlantis. Unreal. Fake. False. No one really goes to GITMO. It’s a place you hear about, but can’t be about. Fictional! The expectation took on a life of its own. ‘I’m Going to GITMO!’

I told everyone: friends, family, pets. I ouigie board-ed my grandparents souls. I posted it as my Facebook status, and not one of my four thousand friends believed me: “For who, the detainees? Nice try” “How they gonna laugh with bags over their heads?” “Is your act the latest form of torture?” I couldn’t fault their dubiety. I didn’t believe it myself. As far as I’d known, the only way to GITMO was as a detainee or a soldier, an offender or defender— no middle road means of making your way. Bad, or brave. Who knew six years of touring as a comic would land me there; I know I’ve ‘bombed’ on stage, but I’d never bombed a country.

Since childhood I’ve been obsessed with forbidden places. Weather spelunking my three year-old foot into my father’s cavernous work shoes, or thwarting my head through the moguls of bubble bath suds, to see what was in the water beneath. There’s something welcoming about places you aren’t supposed to be, the feeling of going ‘in to’ where I’m supposed to be ‘out of.’ Something so invitational about a ‘Do Not Enter’ sign; an “I wouldn’t do that” warning. Those places where your Memory gets evicted, and Instinct becomes landlord. When the multi dimensional, HD, ‘big screen’ world narrows to a diorama of what you see in front of you, and the slack sidewalk of time turns into a concrete tightrope. When every moment becomes a choice. And every choice the next moment. Places like GITMO.

As a teenager on a summer vacation in Isleboro, Maine my friends and I would sneak into the famed family Rothschild’s pool to skinny dip. I didn’t enjoy swimming, but I drowned in anticipation as we ninja-ed over the granite and gneiss wall around their mansion. Standing on their form fitted lawn I could feel my nerves orgasming, making every step feel slippery with uncertainty, yet sticky with actuality.

My heart took on a life of its own. Beating like an African drum. The fear was joyous. With every step the lurk of sleeping thorn bushes, guard dogs with no sense of sportsmanship, or an angered, flashlight-wielding butler—a fourteen year olds arch nemesis—had my skin crawling to hide inside of me. I could feel my brain squint as it sat on the edge of its spinal column seat, waiting for the foggy New England dark to play is cards.

I’ve missed that rush. Until now, a decade later.

At 11 pm, 24 hours after leaving Los Angeles, a captain in his early thirties hurries in. He doesn’t look like a Ramon. Wearing a brown Airforce onesie, he looks tense, like a chocolate baby someone threatened to melt. I almost say that to him, but I don’t. As a comic, your brain tells you to say things normal people wouldn’t say. Usually I listen, but this is different. He’s come from somewhere greater than my thoughts.

“We’re making the turn, “he quips to the counter attendant, just loud enough for us to overhear. In airplaneese this means a plane, which has just landed, will be refueling, boarding up, and taking off asap. No more waiting. But to me, it’s more than that. It means we’re really going. For months my imagination has been fueled up by research, boarded by hopes, but left dawdling at the right angle of anticipation. Now it can make the turn as well.

He points to us, points to our luggage, and points out to the tarmac; neolithic sign language. I take it as an order.

Without thought I’m on my feet, holding my bags and moving. I’m about to fly to a place surrounded by guard towers housing some of the world’s ‘presumed’ most dangerous enemies. I’m about to ‘turn’ around the physical island of Cuba, into the backyard of one of the world’s most peace-harrowing dictators. I’ve been awake for 24 hours, but I feel like I just woke up. I’m pumped. My blood could fuel the flight. We grab our luggage and double time it. That’s military talk for ‘moving twice as fast.’ My mind has been double timing for 90 days. It’s nice to feel my feet follow rank.

We’re on the plane. It’s small. It’s full. Two pilots up front. Six seats in the rear. There are seven of us, total. The captain doesn’t even give his name, just asks us our weights, to determine where we should sit. “Someone, preferably the smallest person, will have to sit on the crapper,” Captain Chocolate Melts-a-lot tells us. Seeing as comedians, we are all full of shit anyway. Its sort of fitting. I’m surprised they don’t have us each sitting on shitters, or performing on the wing, just for their kicks.

He asks us about temperature concerns as well, “It may get pretty cold up there, and we don’t’ have heat on this bird. Will you all be able to handle this?” I’m nodding ‘yes’ before he has even finished the inquiry. The other comedians do too. I’ve waited too long to get to this point and fault on a comfort-technicality. “Do any of you have any liquids or perishables?” is his final questions. “No,” we answer in surprising unison. Like a real military squadron. Ironically, though, I know those two words make up everything that I am: liquid and perishable. But I don’t joke now. I’ll save that for later.

The plane taxis for five minutes. I can only see lights and outlines of buildings. Gaining speed, the engine inhales big, and we lift off the ground. It’s a different lift than I am used to on the commercial airliners. It feels dangerous.Like someone is watching. Gravity pulls us down a little, and for a few seconds we are the rope in a tug of war. Back, forth, back, forth, until the night wins. We ease into the darkness of the sky, and toward the darker-ness of GITMO. Below us is Fort Lauderdale, I know, but more so, it’s Fort Familiarity. I am leaving known safety, for four nights behind enemy lines. The only enemies I’ve ever had were middle school bullies and sports hecklers. These are real enemies in an unreal place.

It will be a two-hour ride. We have to go AROUND the island, as we can’t legally fly through Cuban airspace, without an Overflight Permit which must be obtained by contacting the Ministerio Del Transporte in Havana. I’m sure it’s been a long time since that desk answered any U.S. Military calls. Or since the U.S. bothered to pick up the phone to let them know we’d be swinging around.

In minutes we are over the ocean. The city turns from recognizable lights to vague spots of brightness, dimming by the second. Campfires maybe? Oil wells? My freedom? Before I can decide, they are gone. Out of sight, like they never were. The reality of the situation starts to massage my temples. Am I really going to perform stand up ‘out here?’ Shouldn’t they at least have asked me to tell a joke before letting me board? Or asked me to sing the national anthem? Or for some I.D. at the least? Do they already know everything about me? I’m shocked we haven’t been briefed by a military official. No Q and A, no standing at attention, no guidelines. Not recognized at all. We have been regarded only by number, weight, and volume; as cargo. I was expecting intense formality, or at least some formality. But none. I feel like a kept secret; Unasked, Untold. Exactly what GITMO is known for, but what I, as a stand-up comedian, am not.

This skinny dipping feels way too serious. The nervous excitement I was expecting is showing up confused. The pitch blackness and whirring engine contribute to my paranoia. The loud darkness suddenly feels planned. What have I gotten into? I’m just going to perform, right? Or is there more to this? Am I in trouble with my country? My conscience starts puking truths. I know I’ve thrown away some 10 jury duty summons, and didn’t pay taxes for a few years under the excuse ‘I didn’t know I had too’ but are those crimes serious enough?

I mentally rehash my Google history for anything un-American. And try to recollect any inconsistencies in phone conversations with my family before my departure. Possibly hinting that they knew this wasn’t a trip for ‘work’ like I thought it was. Nothing comes to mind, though I burned an American flag once at age nine, but only because I’d seen it done on some homemade Klan channel our rabbit ears picked up. But that was so long ago. Is there a statute of limitations on ‘poor childhood decisions/no cable’? Inquiries bounce inside my spinning thoughts like bingo balls. I want to ask questions, but the propeller engine says ‘Nooooooooooooooo…’ with an ‘o’ that won’t end.

The military men are silent. It’s hard to distinguish if they are so on purpose. You can’t make out faces. Silhouettes only… sort of. It is almost blind in here, but just light enough for you to constantly try to decipher what you think you see. For a guy whose livelihood is based on hearing and reacting to his audience, it’s the perfect little torture.

I can’t tell if the other comedians’ eyes are open, or what they’re thinking. Are they in on this? Is this a set up? Have I read this all wrong? I should have realized this opportunity was too unique to be real. I’m too much of a jester for a stage this serious.

Outside of the plane, we actually pass over the southwestern corner of the Bermuda Triangle. The darkness is thick, as if the US government has installed more darkness here than usual. Out of my window I can just see the wing. The moon sits half full in the sky, half an English muffin in the black toaster night. It’s a lot for my brain to fathom; my unshapen fate above this triangle of fiction.

I wish someone would put some music on. Something wonted. I’m literally having trouble feeling grounded on this plane. I want to ring the ‘call button’ but there isn’t a call button. It’s not a commercial flight. No nuts, no airbag. No cute girl coming down the isle. Hell, there is no isle. From my seat I can touch everyone and flush the shitter. There is no captain saying, “And if you look to your right…the Grand Canyon.” It’s all a grand canyon.

Just when I’m wondering if I will ‘retain an attorney of my own, or have one appointed to me by the courts,’ a familiar sounds rips through the air like a signal flare. I could tell that sound anywhere, because it’s my main export: Laughter. It’s my cargo. One of the pilots is laughing at a joke told by the others through his headset. I can’t hear the joke, but I don’t need to. I know how laughter works, it’s infectious. In a second, as if the sense of familiarity changed the lens on my eyes and mind, the silhouettes in the darkness chisel into actual people, and the worry leaves me. Another airman responds with a joke of his own, and they all laugh again. I can’t help but laugh as well. This joke has been on me.

The plane banks. I can’t see it, but I feel it. The motor chills its growl. I think we’re getting close. My previously lost excitement finds me, and I envision Fidel sitting up in bed, smoking and reading his own history books. We buzz his house and startle him. He stumbles over a Cuban ottoman.His cigar gets caught in his beard. In a moment he is out on his lawn, waving his fist. ‘Pesky Americans! Fidelista!!’

But we’ve only banked into more darkness. As vague and mysterious as this GITMO has always seemed to me, it continues to be, even as I get closer the void is both figurative and real. Though I can now see the cockpit controls clearer. I’m trying to read the odometer. It reads 3,000 ft. Their control panel looks like a movie set. The dials are many. Some with orange numbers, some green. Some old school with meters. FUEL is the only word I can read. I have not been this awake since I was born. I feel a shift in gear, and a drop. Slowly, we’ve begun descending. Like a birth.

The pilots don’t seem excited.They are season veterans. This is a job. I am 27 years old and happy to be living this and not Googling it. Our descent is fast. Gauges flicker and flash. We are turning, around the easternmost point of Cuba, and heading back West into the inlet that is Guantanamo Naval Base. We’re close.The moon passes in front of us. The Cessna banks hard. All my senses have rushed to my head. I hear a speaker BOOOOOWP BOOOOWP BOOOOOWP in the plane. Maybe it’s to wake people up. I’m wide eyed. I’ve been awake for three months.

Then I see it. Like the ruffled hem of a skirt on a hot girl in church, the fluorescent fence line of Guantanamo Bay appears out of the windows across from me. The booming lights outline every inch of the shoreline cul-de-sac that belongs to the United States. Along the southern edge of the outline two glowing squares trump all wattage. Like jewelry boxes of the US Government. This is where America keeps its secrets. Before I can even ask a question I already know the answer to, the captain assist leans over, “those are the detainee camps, flood lights on 24 hours a day,” he states. I never knew the definition of a flood light until I saw these. I could see inside the plane now, and we must still be fifteen-hundred feet up. These lights flood; it’s a bright Katrina. I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep or think around them. With this much light, even one’s dreams must feel invaded.

This view slips fast as we are coming in hot. We zip away from the detainee camps, gliding downward to the west, to the base airfield. I’m fired up, my blood is high octane. It’s all so hurried, like young sex. I can see buildings and dim lights and shorelines, and can feel the land approaching. With a hurried hug between rubber and tarmac, the plane lands gracefully, as though it were a hawk and its owner had been calling. The engine idles down to a comfortable moan, and things are dark again; but only on the outside. In my mind the lights are on. Every light; charged, and ready to explore. Smiling, I feel a sense of belief come over me. My trip to GITMO isn’t a joke or a hoax, its real; and I’m only beginning to touch the veil. Sure, we’ve only gone a few hundred miles from the American mainland, but that’s a million miles in the distance of a Guantanamo-eager imagination.

About the Author

Theo Von

Theo Von is a comedian based in Los Angeles. You can check him out at theovon.com and follow him on Twitter at @TheoVon and on Facebook at facebook.com/theo.von.

  • Nick

    Theo is a funny, funny comedian with weird, wonderful sense of humor.  He is also, obviously, a compelling author and an insightful observer of his own mind.  Loved it, feel like I lived it.