Monday, April 30, 2018

South Korea; 14 Years in the Making, Part I

It's crazy. 



That seems to be the general consensus of opinion over the last few weeks or so since I announced that we are moving to Korea. I know it seems crazy and makes no sense, even to people who know me. So I thought I'd try to explain a bit. This decision is a very personal one. Even some of my closest friends are shocked and can't fathom what I have done. It is completely understandable as my love affair with Asia and my desire for this particular job are well - or semi-well - kept secrets. To try and understand, let's go back to the year 1989...

I joined the Army Reserves in 1989 to help pay for college and ended up serving 7 years with one year in the inactive reserve. In 1998, after being completely out of the Army for a year I was tired of my job and I decided to enlist active duty because they offered me a position in Germany which is what I wanted - to see Europe. In the years that followed, I saw Europe in spades; every weekend I jumped a train somewhere, usually to a random location that I literally chose at the train station. I was young, dumb and full of...wanderlust. After two years in Germany I got a transfer to Italy, the land of my dreams. I never thought it possible, that I could live in such a beautiful and fairytale land as this; but it was real and from the very first day here, I embraced this land and all it had to offer. But I still had the damned wanderlust and it was quickly outgrowing the small continent of Europe. I'd seen most of Western Europe and wanted more - much, much more.  

First trip to Hong Kong, learning how to use chopsticks

One day in 2000, I was at work and had nothing going on so I started fooling around on the internet. I hadn't taken leave in a while so I started checking prices of plane tickets to places around Europe that I hadn't seen; Barcelona, Lisbon, Dublin, Stockholm, etc. And then for some reason, I put in places back home to see how much it would cost to fly home; Boston, Manchester, Portland, etc. And then, again, for some unknown reason I started plugging in the most exotic places I could think of to see how much it would cost to fly there and they were expensive but one place in particular was cheap and caught my attention - Hong Kong. Now all I knew of Hong Kong was from a rubber gorilla toy that I had as a kid because it said "Made in Hong Kong" on it. So to me it was as exotic as it gets. I did an online search for hotels and found some really cheap one. My wanderlust was in overdrive. I HAD to do this. I booked a trip and went to Hong Kong and just absolutely fell in love with it. It was immediately my favorite city I had ever seen. I was desperate to go back but it had opened the gate to Asia for me and I thought I wanted to see other places in Asia first so I did a trip to Thailand first. Again, absolutely loved it. My wanderlust was out of control. Here was an entire continent that I had yet to discover. The possibilities were endless. And then, as it often does, fate intervened; I met Virginia. 

She was originally from the Philippines but had been living and working in Hong Kong for about 10 years. I fell in love with her immediately. It was so hard to leave her but we spent a lot of time chatting online and talking on the phone and eventually I scheduled another trip where I brought her a ring and proposed to her. Most people thought I was crazy but I knew. I just knew. 16 years of marriage and three kids later...I'm pretty sure I made the right choice.  

Mak's Noodle Shop; Where I first proposed to Virginia.

I often think that part of the reason I fell in love with her was because of Hong Kong itself; she'd been there 10 years and was a master of the city and I fell in love with the city as I fell in love with her. We explored parts of the city and the region that few people have seen. We hiked the mountains of Lantau Island by day and partied in the nightlife of the Wanchai by night. It was a love affair founded on the romance of Hong Kong itself. Don't believe anyone who says that Hong Kong is just a big, boring city. It is so much more. It changed my life. It remains, to this day, my favorite city in the world. And that is no small claim. By the time I left her the second time, I'd been to Hong Kong three times and Thailand once. Limited as it was, my experiences showed me that I loved Asia and to explore it more. Here is the Hong Kong page of my old website:

Rik's Hong Kong Page

A lot has happened to me since those days. We had Xavier pretty quickly; he wasn't planned but he arrived in 2003 in the beautiful medieval walled town of Soave. He grew up in Italy, went to school here, became fluent in the language and is more Italian than anything else. I got out of the Army back in 2004. When I was getting out, the first call I made was to the unit in Korea to see if they had any civilian jobs available in my field. I wanted to work in Korea for the obvious reasons; closer to the Philippines, closer to the wife's family, closer to Hong Kong and closer to all the other places I wanted to explore in Asia. It was hard to reach the right people but I was told that there were no jobs there at the time. I was crushed but with a one year old at home, I was too concerned with finding a job - any job - to care about not finding a job in Korea. As most of you know, I ended up getting a job as a contractor here in Vicenza followed by a jump into the Department of Defense Civilian world up in Germany shortly thereafter. All the while, Asia grew further and further away. Luca was born in Heidelberg in May 2008. In November 2008 we moved back here to Italy as a DoD civilian and stayed until 2014 when the government sent us to Redneckville (aka 'Scumter'), South Carolina. About a year before we left, Maximus Amadeus Thibodeau was born right here in Vicenza. All my kids were born overseas. We are a true international family...

Stay tuned for Part II...

Monday, April 02, 2018

Remembering SFC Danny "Fergusi" Ferguson; Soldier, Hero, Father, Fiance and Friend.

SFC Danny Ferguson started working in my office in Heidelberg, Germany sometime in late 2006 or early 2007. He was very quiet and reserved when he first arrived but one day I started talking to him and to my surprise, he mentioned that he liked to watch soccer. At the time we lived on the Hauptstrasse in the heart of Heidelberg's historic downtown area and my favorite pastime was watching soccer and rugby at the Dubliner, our local Irish pub. I told Danny that he was welcome to join us anytime and he came down that weekend. Back then, the X Man (Xavier) was our only kid and he would always accompany me to the pub and would spend the time playing with the people who worked at the pub. Well, he and Danny hit it off from the first minute they met. Xavier had trouble saying "Ferguson" so he called him "Fergusi". I didn't realize it at the time but a special friendship was started that day.

Fergusi came down again the next weekend and I told him he was welcome to come over later for dinner if he wanted to, as my wife is an amazing cook and she loves having people over to try her cooking. He did and we learned one of his little peccadilloes that night - he hated vegetables. I mean, he hated vegetables. The only vegetable he would eat were potatoes and only if they were sliced and deep fried. Every time we were at the Dubliner, he would order a burger but he would get the lettuce, tomato and pickle on the side and Virginia would eat them (Xavier was and is a pickle fiend). 

In the following weeks Fergusi became a regular with us at the Dubliner and became a fixture in our home. He and the X Man became instant buddies and he would often spend the whole day playing with him. He loved Virginia's cooking (who doesn't?); he loved to buy fresh salmon filets and shrimp from the Nordsee across the street and have Virginia cook it for him. He quickly became a part of our family. 
The X Man and Fergusi, best buddies.

At work, me, Fergusi and our friend Ramsey were the Three Musketeers. Every day we would eat lunch together at the dining facility and then spend the rest of the lunch hour walking around base talking about every and anything you could imagine. Looking back, those walks were so special but at the time, it was just three good friends hanging out. 

Fergusi was a gym rat. A HUGE gym rat. His arms were massive. I had a blood pressure scare and was forced to buy a home blood pressure machine to keep track of it and one time he was at the house and said "Yo, let's see what my blood pressure is". I put the strap on him but his arm was so freaking big that the velcro kept coming apart. His arms were actually too big for the machine! At work we used to make fun of him constantly because he was hopelessly addicted to junk food. He had one entire drawer at his desk that was nothing but junk food and candy and he drank Mountain Dew and Yoo Hoo like he owned stock in them. I asked him one time how he can be a gym rat and yet eat and drink so much junk and he said "Why do you think I work out so much? So I CAN eat and drink all this junk!"  

In May of 2008, Luca was born. Fergusi took to him immediately. Whenever he was at the house he insisted on bottle feeding him. We did a hail and farewell for work one time on a boat tour of the Neckar River; Fergusi spent the entire time holding Luca, feeding him, burping him, etc. Fergusi had a young daughter in the US from a previous marriage who he always talked about and Virginia and I could tell that he loved holding and feeding Luca and playing with Xavier so much because it reminded him of his daughter Ashley. You could see the love on his face whenever he talked about her. He was so good with my kids too, just a natural with them. We always had trouble getting Xavier to eat his food but Fergusi did this thing where he'd say "Xavier, it's a race between you and me to see who finishes first" and Xavier would always respond by eating as fast as he could. He just always knew which buttons to press with the X Man. 
Xavier, Fergusi and Luca.

Fergusi could always get Xavier to eat fast by challenging him to a race

In the fall of 2008 we moved back to Italy. We had a huge going away party at the Dubliner with all our friends and coworkers. It was such a fun night but what I remember most was that Fergusi held six month old Luca all night so Virginia and I could enjoy the festivities. 

Our going away bash at the Dubliner: Fergusi assigned himself baby duty.

A year or so after we moved back to Italy, Fergusi and Monty, another one of our best friends, came down to visit for a few days. Xavier was as excited as I've ever seen him. We all had so much fun that weekend - Monty and I enjoyed exploring the local food while Fergusi spent the entire weekend playing with Xavier, like we had never left. It was just like old times. When the weekend was over and it came time for Monty and Fergusi to leave, Xavier grabbed onto Fergusi's leg and refused to let go. It was such a sweet moment and I'm glad I was to capture a photo of it. Eventually Fergusi picked him up, hugged him tight and said he'd see him again soon. Little did we know it would never happen. 

Just like old times: enjoying Virginia's cooking

The boys (minus Ramsey), back together again

Xavier and Fergusi goofing around on the piazza, just like always. 

The last time we saw Fergusi alive; Xavier refused to let him go. It was almost as if he knew he'd never see him again. 

Eventually Fergusi PCS'd to Fort Hood, Texas. There, he deployed to Afghanistan for another tour and he met the love of his life, a beautiful girl (from Massachusetts! Go Sox!) named Kristen who he ended up proposing to. He was scheduled to PCS to Hawaii where he and Kristen would be married. He was happier than I'd ever seen him. His life was practically perfect. 

And then, in a moment of madness it was taken from him. From all of us:

That day will forever be ingrained in my memory. The Ft Hood shooting was all over the news so I called Kristen to see if her and Fergusi were ok and then all I remember is dropping the phone, wrapping my arms around Virginia and crying like I've never cried before. I had to pick up Xavier at his bus stop and I couldn't hold back the tears. He kept asking me why I was crying and I told him I'd explain it when we got home. When we did, I tried to explain what had happened - how do you explain such a thing to a 10 year old? My heart broke as the tears started rolling down Xavier's little cheeks. I told him Fergusi will always live in his heart. When he finally stopped crying, he told me he would never forget his best friend Fergusi. And he never has. 

A couple years ago we were finally blessed to be able to meet Kristen in person when she was visiting her aunt Jean in Columbia. It was easy to see why Fergusi fell in love with her, she is such a beautiful person inside and out. I cannot even imagine how hard everything has been on her but she has handled the tragedy with such strength, just as Fergusi would have wanted. She will always be part of our family, just as Fergusi was. 

Meeting Kristen was an emotional day for us. 

There are so many things that I want to tell him but I'll never get the chance. I hate that Xavier and Luca will never get to see him again and I hate that he never had the chance to meet Max, who he would have loved. I hate that I'll never get to tease him about his junk food addiction again. If I close my eyes and listen, I can almost hear him saying "What up, Yo!" like he always used to do. He was one of our best friends. We'll never forget him.

We miss you so much Fergusi.