I went on my first National Cartoonists Society (NCS), USO trip last week. The NCS has a long history of working with the USO, dating back to the 1950’s and we’re cheap entertainment – all we need is a pen, a pad of paper and a place to sit.
Bahrain, aside from some flashy skyscrapers downtown, is a pretty desolate looking desert, with beige sand, a beige sky and searing heat. Bahrain is a kingdom that has a long bridge to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis like to come to Bahrain to go to a movie, shop and go out for dinner. I suspect the food, movies and restaurants in Saudi Arabia leave something to be desired, so Bahrain is crammed full of hotels, shopping and restaurants.
Out in the middle of nowhere there is a tree they call the “Tree of Life” that grows where there are no other trees in sight. The locals think the tree is thousands of years old, left over from the Garden of Eden. Those cans on the ground are flood lights. Our group of cartoonists is there in the photo, from left to right, Paul Combs (fireman cartoonist and former political cartoonist for the Tampa Tribune); Michael Ramirez, the knuckle-dragging, Neanderthal, right-wing, Pulitzer-winning star editorial cartoonist; Dave Mowder, Illustrator and character cartoonist; Todd Clark, who draws the comic strip “Lola” and writes gags for another half a dozen top strips; next is me in a Hawaiian shirt, and on the right is Ed Steckley, a brilliant caricature artist/illustrator from New York.
I enjoy drawing for the troops! They seem to really appreciate the cartoons. Typically, they will pull out a cell phone with a photo of a boyfriend, a girlfriend or a dog from back home. I sometimes suggest combining the boyfriend with the dog, which is a big hit with the women soldiers, although it doesn’t work the other way around – “girlfriend as a dog” cartoons are to be avoided!
There are US military installations all around Bahrain, including a very big naval base where we spent a good deal of time drawing. We visited a Patriot missile installation and got a great lesson on how the anti-missile missiles work, but they wouldn’t let us shoot one off.
We had originally been slated to visit Afghanistan, but the Pentagon “locked down” Afghanistan as “too dangerous,” so Bahrain was the safe, backup plan. I’m told that some of these NCS/USO cartoonist trips can be rather rugged and adventurous. Since this was my first time, I have nothing to compare it to. It wasn’t rugged. We had a nice hotel. But is was still an adventure.
I was the oldest guy on the trip. It seems to me that the troops are getting younger as I get older. They are kids. Big, tough kids. I appreciate all they do and it was great fun to sit an talk with so many of them.