Breaking News: Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest arrive in Portland

The wife and I arrived home from our tango lesson last week to find the message light flashing on the phone. “Your turn,” she said as she pulled the ice tray out of the freezer.

I dialed the nineteen numbers needed to reach the voice mail center and listened to the message. This time it wasn’t the Symphony encouraging us to consider a season subscription. It was Ann Carp, the owner of the house which we had vacated three years ago. She said a small package addressed to me had arrived from the Netherlands. Would we like for her to forward it or should she hold it until we could pick it up?

The Netherlands?

My first thought was, “Isn’t it the wrong season for my bulbs to be arriving?” My second thought was, “We don’t even have a garden, why would anyone be sending me tulips?” My third thought was “Cheese?”

My wife asked immediately, “Do you suppose it could it be a subpoena from the International Criminal Court? That’s in The Hague, you know.”

“I don’t think the U.S. has signed on to the I.C.C. yet,” I said, ignoring her implication. “Besides, I seriously doubt they’ll need my testimony again this soon.”

“The wallet you left behind at that whorehouse in Amsterdam?” she asked.

“First, it was not a whorehouse. It was the French Consulate. Furthermore, you have forgotten that I found that wallet under the driver’s seat of the Aston Martin.”

“When was that?” she asked.

“At the Estonian border crossing. You were sleeping while they strip searched me. When you finally woke up, you yelled ‘white slavery!’ and pretended not to know me. Said you did it for the laugh. I was not amused.”

“Oh that’s right,” she replied, rattling the ice in her glass to signal for a refill. “I guess you’ll just have to drive over and pick up the package when you get a chance. Can I ask a favor of you?”

“What’s that?” I responded.

“Don’t ask me to come along with you.”

The next Saturday afternoon, I drove across the Ross Island Bridge into Southwest Portland where we had once rented a mid-century ranch house in the woods. After a short, chatty visit with our former landlady and her rambunctious poodle, I left with a bunch of plate-sized dahlias wrapped in wet newspaper in one hand, and a padded envelope from Europe in the other.

As soon as I was in the car, I tore open the package with the eagerness of a probate attorney unsealing Michael Jackson’s will on Christmas morning. What I found was a collection of plastic toy soldiers, each in a distinctive militaristic pose, and each sporting a blue helmet. The helmets were the blue of a robin’s egg (except that an egg would make for a poor helmet). To be honest, the soldiers were not wearing blue helmets; rather, the part of their olive green heads molded to look like helmets had been daubed with blue paint.

I also found a postcard, the back of which read:

Dear Mister Cannon,

twitter: ‘I’m surprised the mini blue helmets haven’t arr in PDX yet. Soon, perhaps.’

Well … here they are! Looking forward to your uploads.

Cheers, Pierre

In a dizzying rush of surging adrenalin, the puzzle pieces clicked sharply into place. I chuckled with delight as I slammed the car into gear and sped down the road with a chirp of burning rubber and a spray of gravel. “This will make a good story,” I thought as I merged into traffic on I-5 northbound.

I suppose now would be a good time to give the reader the back story about the little soldiers. If your glass is empty or your bladder full, you might take a minute here to fill up or empty out. I’ll be waiting. And I promise to get to the point soon.

Ready? Then let’s get right to it:

A month or more ago, I was perusing my Twitter feed when I spotted a tweet from one of Portland’s leading cultural mavens, Lisa Radon (@lisaradon). I follow reports issued by the estimable Ms. Radon for one simple reason: She keeps her finger on the pulse of Portland’s arts scene the way an OCD-afflicted head nurse keeps track of patients in a cardiac ward—that is to say, obsessively and compulsively. If she reports that something is interesting, it is.

In fewer than the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, Ms. Radon had posted a link to a website for a project titled, “Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest.” The homepage of the website is an interactive world map displaying icons of little army men scattered around the globe. Each icon flags a geographic location and links to a photograph of a little plastic soldier posing at that site. Have you guessed the color of their helmets? Yes, blue. Very good. You’re paying attention.

While the map shows tight clusters of toy soldiers deployed across Europe, the flags extend to India, China, Japan, the United States and other farflung locales. I saw that the Miniscule Blue Helmets had extended their Massive Quest as far as the west coast of the United States, including a deployment on Alcatraz Island; however, I was surprised and disappointed to discover that none had made it as far north as Portland.

As a polite member of the Twitter-verse, I responded to Ms. Radon with a tweet that read, you guessed it: “I’m surprised the mini blue helmets haven’t arr in PDX yet. Soon, perhaps.”

I was intrigued and amused by the notion of planting little soldiers, then watching them spread across the globe. As Ms. Radon had pointed out, the project was reminiscent of one launched in Portland by artist Scott Wayne Indiana. In 2005, Mr. Indiana began tethering toy horses to the iron rings found on many Portland curbs. These rings are remnants from an era when they were actually used to hitch horses. They’ve been preserved in many neighborhoods as a charming reminder of our history. Once the sidewalk horse project got rolling, other people began to voluntarily add to the inventory. My neighborhood in inner-Southeast Portland seems to have been a particularly popular place for an army of horse-placers to work. Dozens of photos of Portland’s sidewalk horses can be found by searching sites such as Flickr. Here’s a picture of a horse that's close to my home.

While Ms. Radon and I were engaged in our little exchange--our tweet-à-tweet, so to speak—I did not suspect that anyone else was paying attention. I was not aware that a certain Pierre Derks, resident of the The Hague, was monitoring our communication with state-of-the-art internet espionage tools. I was not aware that Mr. Derks was both an artist and the lead conspirator behind the Miniscule Blue Helmets on a Massive Quest. I certainly did not suspect that Pierre Derks would make note of an innocuous twitter conversation, track down my address and then assemble a package of little toy soldiers accompanied by a note on a postcard and post it to me. And yet he did just that.

And now, back to our story:

Over cocktails that evening, my wife and I talked about the Blue Helmet project.

“Do you think of these little soldiers as a threatening force--an invasive or occupying army?” she asked. “What I mean is, do you suppose this project is an ironic commentary on the idea of pre-emptive war and imperialism?”

“Oh no, I don’t take it that way,” I said. “The blue helmets are a symbol of the United Nation’s peacekeeping force, which numbers over 100,000 soldiers and civilians and has been in place since 1948. According to the U.N., the blue helmets are a way to help countries torn by conflict create conditions for sustainable peace.”

I went on, “As George Clooney says in his narration of this short video celebrating the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Peacekeepers, ‘Peace, like war, must be waged.”

“Oh, that’s a nice motto,” she responded. “And I like George Clooney. We never did see ‘Syriana’ did we?” She pulled a bag of popcorn out of the microwave. “But did you know that there are people in the United States who believe that our political leaders are conspiring with the U.N. to create a one-world government that will destroy our republic and our way of life? To them, the blue helmets are synonymous with black helicopters, Freemasonry and health care reform.”

I laughed and finished my drink. “That’s crazy talk! And besides, I’d like to shake those people up by planting miniscule blue helmeted soldiers in places where they will be forced to confront them.”

“What do you suppose their massive quest is all about?” she asked while refilling our glasses.

“I don’t know. Returning a ring, I suppose. Or world peace? Maybe it’s just about taking the time to notice the little things in life. When we find a little soldier—or a toy horse—in a surprising place, we’re forced to pause, even for just a moment. Maybe we laugh, or we think about history or war. Or we think about how there’s still a quarter inch of room in that glass that you could fill up.”

She handed me my drink and said, “Or maybe it’s about interconnectedness? You know, the collective nature of a project in which strangers share in a task – in a quest.”

“You’re right. It’s a kind of crowdsourcing!”

She scowled. “You didn’t say ‘crowdsourcing’ did you?”

“No, no. I think you must have misheard me.” I quickly changed the subject. “Where do you think we should put our soldiers?” I was already thinking of them that way.

“I think they ought to be guarding something,” she suggested. “Or observing. One of the figures is holding a pair of binoculars. And if we’re going to post the picture on the map, it ought to show something that is iconic to Portland.”

“I know!” I blurted out. “The bridges! Soldiers guard bridges and Portland is a city of bridges.”

“Splendid idea! We’ll do it tomorrow. It will be an adventure--a mission,” she said turning back to her computer screen. “Now what did you say you were going to get us for dinner?”

Before going to bed that night, I sent a tweet that I intended as a teaser for my twitter followers. It read: “Mysterious package received from Europe. Tomorrow we launch plan that will put Portland on the map!” I hoped that Homeland Security was not monitoring me.

On Sunday, we jumped in the car and headed to the Eastbank Esplanade, first stopping for lunch at the food carts on the corner of S.E. Hawthorne and 12th. Most of the carts were closed for the day, but a few were open for the Hawthorne Street Fair. We chose the Whiffies Fried Pie stand, and opted for a savory selection. Within five minutes we each held a fried pie concocted of chicken pot pie filling surrounded by a perfectly flaky crust. We’ll be back soon to try the sweet selections, which included blueberry and peanut-butter chocolate chip.

Soon we were walking along the Esplanade, a wide promenade that stretches along the eastern bank of the Willamette River from just north of the Hawthorne Bridge to the Steel Bridge. On this sunny Sunday afternoon, we encountered lots of people strolling and even more bicyclists zooming. The bicyclists were ever so helpful as they shouted instructions telling pedestrians where they should properly be walking. It was lovely to be so close to the water.

For our first Blue Helmet mission, we selected a soldier in a sentry position. As we strolled northward, we posed him in several locations, trying to find not only the best photographic composition, but also a spot where we could secure him using one of the blue zip ties that Mr. Derks had thoughtfully included in his package.

“Where do you think we should place him,” asked my co-conspirator. “Should he be hidden, or more visible?”

“I think we want him someplace where people might chance upon him, but not in a spot where the authorities will feel compelled to remove him,” I said. I was also thinking that I wanted him someplace safe. I didn’t want him to go missing too quickly. I was growing attached to a figure that cost only pennies (not including postage). And I remembered that peacekeeping forces, like armies at war, are often in danger. It was good to remember that. He ended up just north of this sign, placed at the lower part of the railing, directly in front of a bench.

We decided to place just one soldier on this first day out. He’s an advance scout – the avant garde in the literal sense of that term. I’ve given him a name, and soon you will be able to read one of the letters he has written to his sweetheart home in Sweden. He’ll be joined by his comrades. Some in Portland and others dispersed to other fronts.

If you have ideas for where to place a soldier wearing a miniscule blue helmet who is on a massive quest, leave a comment or drop me an e-mail.


Dot Hearn said...

LaPine, Oregon could use a blue helmeted soldier. They have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. They could use a little help.

I recently participated in the Cascade Lakes Relay, which went through LaPine and the people were great. They were helpful and there were great roadside diners and a truck stop with showers. They deserve a little blue helmet army attention.

Dot Hearn said...

I forgot to say: in LaPine the truck stop that really was helpful to all of the runners and walkers is called Gordy's. Or a soldier could be sent to the Red Rooster Coffee House, which also handled the onslaught of a couple thousand people really well.