I’ve been thinking about Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and not just because it’s a journalistic must-read with some of my all-time favorite lines. (Many still resonate today: “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”) I’ve also been thinking that my version of O’Brien’s classic would be called The Crap I Lug Around With Me.
I recently made a grunt’s-eye inventory of the contents of the small backpack I carry on assignments. It contained: a notebook; many pens; a spare notebook; a trusty (and rusty) Treo PDA, and its recharger; an Edirol digital recorder, and spare batteries and SD cards for it; namecards; that day’s and very often the previous day’s newspapers; ear-plugs; at least one unread copy of The New Yorker; an amulet featuring Rahu the moon-eating Hindu deity and other lucky charms; and—until it got nicked during a mutiny in Bangladesh last year—a small digital camera. I might still be carrying its recharger.
Compare this to any of my wire-service colleagues. Once, at a riot here in Bangkok, I bumped into Ed from Reuters. Ed is a lean, mean, reporting machine. He carried a notebook, a pen and a phone. That was all.
Almost all. It was October 2008 and the ultraroyalist yellow shirts were on the rampage. Ed and I watched as the Thai prime minister fled the parliament building in a helicopter to avoid a mob at the gates. With chaos looming, a man on a motorbike appeared beside us. It was a Reuters staffer, bringing Ed what looked like an ordinary baseball cap, but was actually a hard-hat, designed to discreetly protect its wearer from rocks and police batons. I felt a flash of gear envy.
I don’t remember seeing Ed when the rocks started flying. But someone might have seen me. I was the guy running for cover, clasping an over-stuffed backpack over his head.