Celmile Holloway and his Honda Nighthawk
Feature Editor Gabe Ets-Hokin has an alter ego as a Public Affairs specialist in the California Army National Guard.
On September 20th, he was sent with California's contingent to Louisiana to assist with disaster relief efforts. Although he is a combat veteran, seeing action as a .50 caliber machine gunner in the first Gulf War, and has seen all kinds of horrible poverty and destruction all over the world, nothing could prepare him for the sight of devastated American homes and communities.
"I never thought I'd see an American city abandoned, with no one in the streets except armed soldiers and stray dogs", said the 36-year-old Army journalist.
Gabe did his part supporting the relief effort by writing press releases for the command group he was stationed with in Slidell, Louisiana, a town about 30 miles northeast of New Orleans that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Being a lowly buck sergeant doesn't protect a soldier from the dreaded work detail, so one day he was sent out to one of two Red Cross distribution points for relief fund debit cards. Initially, the purpose of the detail was to provide security, as thousands of people were expected to wait for hours in the hot sun. But there were plenty of police and sheriff's deputies to provide security, so the Special Forces captain in charge of the detail decided to spend the time handing out iced water bottles instead.
On the second day, Gabe spotted a man waiting in the four-hour line of cars and SUVs on a late-model Honda Nighthawk 750. Since he had seen no other motorcycles in the two days on this detail, he decided to take a closer look to see what was up with this guy.
"He must be made of iron" was the first thought I had when I saw Celmile (say "Camile") Holloway sitting in stop-and-go traffic on I-10, waiting patiently amongst hundreds of cars." It was as if the 95-degree temperatures and high humidity didn't bother him a bit as he sat there, hour after hour to get the small amount of money the Red Cross was offering to victims of Hurricane Katrina. His battery was flat: whenever the cars in front of him would move, he would hop off the bike and bump-start it to go the next 30 yards.
The next thing he knew, Celmile found himself floating in his kitchen, perched atop his refrigerator. "Man, I didn't even know those things floated."
After explaining what I did as a civilian and asking his permission to tell his story, he almost immediately told me how he was released early from work the day of the hurricane and went straight home to ride it out. The next thing he knew, Celmile found himself floating in his kitchen, perched atop his refrigerator. "Man, I didn't even know those things floated." It's a good thing they do, because the 40 year-old oil rig worker needed it to float over to his porch, then climb up onto his roof, drop onto his neighbor's roof, crawl into the man's boat, plug a hole in it, spend three hours bailing it free of water and then proceed to use his new vehicle to rescue 12 other people in his neighborhood. It's an amazing story, but just one of countless thousands that happened in Southeastern Louisiana in September, 2005. "I've had a lot of life-saving training in my job as an oil rig worker." said Celmile. "The next week I was supposed to get firefighter training."
He's also good at fixing stuff: after the water receded, Celmile found nothing salvageable in the Slidell, Louisiana house where he lives with his grown son except his two motorcycles, so he immediately started fixing them up. Celmile loves motorcycles: he's always had one or two since he started riding at age 11, and he loves speed. He claims his souped-up 1998 Honda CBR900RR will do 198 MPH, although he hasn't tested it at that velocity.
Rescuing a motorcycle after it's been totally immersed in floodwater would be a daunting task for a professional mechanic with a clean, organized workspace, much less a flood survivor with nothing but a muddy, ruined house and scavenged tools. But that didn't stop Celmile from draining and cleaning the tank, carburetors and crankcase, replacing the fluids and cleaning the muck and grime from his `02 Honda. His efforts were rewarded; the bike fired right up and once again runs like old-school air-cooled inline-four 750s run, even though he did need to run it without the crankcase breather attached so he could "blow all that stuff out." We all know that this design is robust and reliable, but this is a dramatic example of how sturdy and well-made Hondas are and why Celmile told me "I've only had Hondas all my life."
His efforts were rewarded; the bike fired right up and once again runs like old-school air-cooled inline-four 750s run...What Gabe does in the Army
Most people who meet me and experience my delicate and artistic sensibilities are surprised to find I have almost nine years of military experience. I was a heavy machine gunner (the military MOS code for that is 0332) in the US Marine Corps from 1988 to 1992 and participated in Operation Desert Storm. After I got out of the Corps, I joined the California Army National Guard, and because I didn't really think about it, I went back in as infantry.
But with no war, and a prosperous Bay Area economy keeping our unit under-strength, the Guard was dull in the mid-90's, so I got out for good after my first enlistment ended in 1996. I didn't give it much thought until last year, when I started getting more interested in journalism as a career. I found out there was a public affairs (PA) unit just 50 miles from my home in San Francisco, CA. So last December, I re-enlisted and joined that unit.
Our unit, the 69th Press Camp Headquarters, provides PA support for almost any type of military unit from a battalion to an entire army group. That means writing press releases, operating a media center, producing all kinds of video products, escorting civilian media representatives or any number of other tasks. In the present day, precise management and control of information is crucial, as public support for a war can hinge on a single photograph, like the famous one of Saigon's police chief executing a suspected Viet Cong sapper.
This doesn't mean propaganda: rather, it means controlling information so incomplete or incorrect facts can be kept from news media and the public before it can harm a unit's mission or unfairly damage a person or institution's reputation. Not through whitewashing or stonewalling, but rather through ensuring that only correct, fairly presented facts are offered after all information is gathered. Even if a correction is issued, often the damage is done when incorrect information or a few damaging photos are released out of a complete context. You can't unring a bell, as law professors like to say.
Naturally, the 800+ members strong California contingent of the National Guard presently in Louisiana needs PA support, so a team from my unit was activated and sent to the affected area. I spent about two weeks there, and even though I have not yet completed my formal training as a 46Q (Public Affairs Specialist, Writer) I was still able to knock out press releases, take lots of photographs, and support the PA officer that I was working for.
Now Celmile uses the bike as his sole means of transportation, since his car was flooded too.
As far as military jobs go, PA is one of the better ones: you get to observe and participate in some of the more interesting things the military does, but you get treated a little better than the average soldier, and the creative part of the job ensures that the usual humorless and dense senior NCOs are out of your hair. You mix with civilian media types and are offered opportunities to travel all over the world doing interesting things. In the last two years my unit has been to Korea, Germany, Kosovo, the Ukraine and Louisiana. Although I'm not staying in the Guard, it's been a fun and interesting way to end my military career.
Now Celmile uses the bike as his sole means of transportation, since his car was flooded too. He loves his motorcycles and rode more than your average rider did before Katrina hit, but he is tired of having to use the bike for every trip, especially in hot, humid southeastern Louisiana.
Plus, his bike is in need of some serious help. The front and back tires are bald, the battery is ruined, the front fender is broken in half, and the left rear tail section plastic has a crack in it. To add insult to injury, he's left with a rather questionable 1970's Bell helmet that fits so loosely you'd think it was previously owned by Charlie Brown.
MO is kicking down $100 so Celmile can get his life put back together more quickly: if there are a few MOrons out there willing to donate motorcycle-related gear (he's about a size medium), I'm sure it would be much appreciated. Please contact me or anybody else on the staff, so we can give you his address.
I'm positive Celmile will have his life back on track soon. One look at him tells you he isn't the kind of guy that gives up easily!
Why spend all that time and effort to get his bike running again, even though he's writing off all the rest of his possessions?
Celmile patted the tank and summed it up for me: "I love my motorcycles."