Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Red Corolla

A few days after the attack found me perched atop the very guard tower targeted by the suicide bomber. I saw the black crater to my right, and there was a burnt aroma lingering in the air. There was no traffic on the road, no more children in the fields playing cricket, no cattle or sheep. Just silence.

The Sergeant of the guard told us all intel had come in of another attack, this time with a red Corolla carrying another suicide bomber.

There were a few locals in work clothes and yellow construction helmets repairing the pockmarked tower. I started up a friendship with a man with JAFAR handwritten on his helmet. He was a few years older than me, and spoke excellent English. He was from Laghman, one of the more stable places to live in the country. After some smalltalk, we delved into politics. He shook his head with disgust when mentioning the suicide bombers. He said most Afghan men only see the faces of 5 women in their lives. What do you think happens when you get a 14 year old boy raised on the conquest culture of Islam, full of sexual frustration, being told by a person of authority you can have your fill of celestial sexual binges if you put on this vest and push a button?

He told me that if you ever tried to talk to an Afghan woman, her 6 brothers would come to your house and kill you, but not before slitting her throat. And if you ever saved enough money for a dowry, then you were presented with a strange woman, and her face might possibly be the first non-blood relative woman you'll ever see.

The wind shifted, and brought about an offensive odor. "What is that?" I asked.

"That? They found a leg this morning yonder in the ditch."

With the smell of a week old human leg sitting out in the stifling heat, I tried to concentrate to the remainder of the conversation.

I asked him if he ever had any contact with the Soviets in the 80s. He told me when he was 7 or 8 years old, a tank stopped in front of his house and the officer and sergeant got out to study their maps. The gunner saw young Jafar motioned him closer. He looked at his parents, who waved him toward the tank with a smile. When he got closer, the gunner reached into his pocket and pulled out a shiny foil wrapper and gave it to Jafar. He opened it and saw some butter cookies, which he ate. "I still have this taste on my tongue today" he told me.

Eventually his shift ended and the sun started to set.
I started to get bored.

Then off to the right, I saw a small 125cc Pamir motorcycle heading towards me. It slowed down. Then stopped. He was perhaps 800 yards off. He stayed still for a moment, turned around, and went back up the road.

Then I saw him coming back. But with a red car behind him. I got off the stool and stood at the corner of the tower with my binoculars. He stopped again and turned away, but the car drove on. It then s-l-o-w-e-d to an absolute crawl, and I approached the 240B machine gun that was lazily pointed toward the sky. The bolt was to the rear, and all I had to do was push the safety button and pull the trigger. The car seemed to slow down even more as it approached. Goosebumps erupted across my arms, my heart thumped and rolled ever more frantically. I clicked the safety button at 300 yards and rested my finger alongside the guard, then the trigger, and waited for something to happen. Centuries passed, and I saw the driver looking nervously at me, and I looked into his eyes for a moment. Then I saw movement behind him. A little girl with black hair and a giant smile excitedly waved her hand side to side at me. I held my finger on the trigger, then after they passed, I clicked the safety back on and pointed the rifle barrel above the car. I had to lean forward on the wall to support my weight as I commanded my body to stand down.

I don't ever want to have to do that again.

I slept poorly that night, with that gamey smell still in my nostrils and dreamed of the tell-tale leg hobbling out of the ditch coming to get me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Waiting for it

The prisoner, is he happier the night before he is released, or the night after?

I've been thinking my whole life that nothing trumps satisfaction. We are conditioned to believe that, perhaps. But satisfaction fades, and a low follows a high.

I have one great passion right now, an obsession. Home. I want so much to see Bagram again, because the next time I do, I'll be closer. Kuwait, even in scorching springtime will be a relief. Germany, then Kentucky. Then what? This great growing hunger, this desire to be back home will be sated and I'll be happy. I know that won't be it. I'll have fresh troubles then, but they are unforseeable to me now.

But this is the moment of perfection, and I haven't realized it. I have three glorious months to contemplate a moment beyond criticism, unable to dull until it passes.

Now I am as a young man, made plans to meet a new lover. What feeling on earth is better than waiting for her knock? The minutes tick by, dreadfully slow. Books and television are worthless diversions. You cannot give them any concentration, for your arms ache for her and your chest is hollow awaiting her arrival. How would any mere diversion fulfill such a hunger?

And no matter how glorious the rendezvous, which is better: the hour before the knock on the door, or the hour after?

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Attack

I eased onto the passenger seat of the gator behind the barracks and propped my feet up on the dash. I raised my paper cup in the direction of the charred crater to the southwest. 
It had started different from any other. What woke me was the sound of a man's death. The moment that started my day ended his.
The explosion shook the walls of my room. After a confusing half minute, the loudspeaker started wailing, then followed by the calm voiced announcer. I kicked my feet into my sandals, grabbed my rifle, and dove into the squat concrete bunker. 
God, that was a loud one. Was it a mortar, an RPG, what? My comrades and I all looked at each other like grinning imbeciles. A few nervous jokes were exchanged, then a head poked into the shelter and said "Gear up!"
We ran back to our rooms and shimmied into our armor and helmet and met up at the company. The explosion was a car bomb trying to breach our wall. The plan was that after a hole big enough was made, the bomber's friends could crawl in and start their business on us. I was told to post next to some cover in front of the wall and be ready for another explosion, and kill anyone that climbed through the breach. 
I saw a spindle of black smoke rising in the air to the south, and our towers were firing their 240s, but where? Then I heard my first AK-47 bark. It was directly in front of me, just past the wall. My opponent and I were facing each other. He still fired at me, his bullets whistling over my head. I heard the tower firing, and saw some of its rounds kick up dust on the wall in front of me, but I could see nothing of my enemy past it.
And then the hornet's nest was shaken. The Kiowas chains were unclasped and they roared through the air, past the wall. They turned about and swooped low and loosed missiles from their bulging quiver. Each rocket echoed in my chest as it struck upon the earth. At least two other comrades and me pumped our fist into the air and let out a simultaneous cathartic yawp. 
The firing and explosions died down after a while and then stopped. We were all alive, without exception. Our would-be murderers were not. We were released from guarding the wall, and I went to my room and stripped my armor from my soaking limp body. Normalcy returned. But this was my first attack. I had never been under fire before. My God but it was potent stuff. And thus I came down from this high.
The loudspeaker proclaimed an "all clear" after a while. I took a shower and shave and went about my day.
A new sensation entered my system. Elation. I was beaming. I felt I was stifling a laugh at a funeral, like an emotion unacceptable and best to be hidden was trying to escape.
The cruelty of it all was that I had no way to celebrate. I wanted a giant bottle of wine that would stain my lips black and stick to my tongue. I wanted warm bread and cheeses and black unpitted olives served across a big square bed and a woman with fire in her eyes and hunger in her touch.
I had one luxury, but it would have to wait until after work. I had 3 left over from a care package. The work day finally came to an end, and I found a box of pineapple juice and a paper cup of crushed ice at the chow hall. They had plums and apricots, and the fruit is always good in Afghanistan. In American chow halls, the apples are mealy and the oranges are dry and the grapes are soft. But here... oh but here.
I brought my feast behind the barracks and unsheathed a black cigar. I had changed into my black shorts and gray shirt. Sitting on the gator seat, I squeezed the juice out until my cup was full of the sweet vintage. I swirled it round to get it cold, and the first sip coated my tongue with the delicious sweet stuff. 
I applied the torch lighter to the end of the cigar, lighting it without drawing. After it glowed orange I blew out, ridding it of unpleasant burnt taste. It was glorious. I lustily bit into the apricot, letting the juice run down my arm and then I lay back in the seat. Blue smoke was rising from the cigar tip, and the stars were shining brilliantly. The crescent moon was blood red off in the distance and I was alive, and was going to live until I took my last breath.
I held the cigar between sticky fingers and savored the comforting dark tobacco and sat smoking in glorious reverent silence.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hero photos

"You need to go get another hero picture taken," I was told after a long day of work.

The hero pic. A stoic photograph of you in uniform standing in front of the flag. Why? In case you get killed and they can hang your shot on the wall with the other heroes. Sure, he died for a good cause, the ninth year of providing the warm blanket of freedom to 300 million people by supporting a narco-trafficking family that were busboys in Maryland a decade ago.

Back in the states, it was a solemn affair. I fixed my eyes on the camera lens and tried not to blink. I was going to make a respectable face beyond the grave if the photo ever needed to be hung.

Then a long trip to Asia, settling in, and getting used to a small living arrangement and constant work hours. The LT lost the camera, so everyone in the company had to take another hero photo. I didn't care as much this time around, repetition robbing the solemnity from the occasion.

A month later: "Go to the CP, you need to take another hero picture. Sergeant so and so lost the memory card on the camera."

I stood in front of the flag like some criminal too familiar with the mugshot. I gave a toothy grin, unzipped my blouse a few inches and slid a hand into the breast. I thought it looked damned good and added a touch of history and flair to the whole grim business, but the unsmiling sergeant photographer shared none of my enthusiasm. "Stop screwing around, do you want the Division to think you were some kind of jackass?"

"First, I don't think I'll care too much what people will think if this picture ever gets framed, and second, I'll be back in a few weeks after you realize you're pointing the camera the wrong way."

I get a lot of counseling statements.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Soviet Resort

We had a meeting the other day with some UN representatives, and had to travel to their small base nearby. The chopper ride lasted 4 minutes and 12 seconds, but the differences were profound.

There were trees and old hotel buildings, gardens filled with fragrant and colorful flowers. I could smell savory Afghan cuisine being carried by the breeze. There was an old drained swimming pool, and the sounds and smells of livestock just out side of the gate. Turns out, this is an old Soviet R&R base. The hotels were for the higher-ups, and I heard a rumor that the Russians used to throw mujahideen into the pool and watch them drown. When the Afghan fighters took over the base, they said the pool was empty, and some Soviets were marched into the deep end and shot. "There were still bullet holes and stains on the concrete in 2001," someone told me. It's probably untrue, but I still strained hard at the walls looking for any trace of previous atrocity.

I found it odd that the godless Communist Soviets almost 30 years ago had more sense of the aesthetic than the leading world's power does now.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Julie What's-her-name

Not every Christmas, but occasionally, when I am feeling reflective or nostalgic, I hear a song or see someone that reminds me of her. It was my first year at University, and I was playing baritone sax in the Jazz band. We borrowed a girl from the choir department for the lead vocals. She had hair like corn silk, and a youthful round face, dimples on each full cheek, and a small beauty mark above her upper lip. Her eyes were a haunting transparent green, and I fell in love with her the first moment I saw her.

We started up a bouncing "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town", and her quiet nature she possessed while the director introduced her vanished. Her voice was strong, but soft and comforting. She was a beautiful alto, and had a broad and easy smile. I was sick with heartache. She was from Seattle, cultured and interesting and cruelly out of reach. I was terrified of her. I know I would ruin any chance with her by being so intimidated, so I cut my losses early and ached for her while being safely out of reach.

She wore a simple black dress the night of the concert. She sang with her fingers lightly touching the microphone stand, and her soft voice filled the air with warmth that echoed through the auditorium. We all shook hands after the concert and I never saw her again.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Revenge, like most cold dishes, is not satisfying

A few weeks before deployment, my idiot roommate had his idiot friend over late on a Sunday night. They were playing a video game on the giant tv and had courteously turned the volume of the speakers down (a point of etiquette wildly uncommon). After a while, I turned my lamp off and dog-eared my book, and drifted off to a peaceable slumber.

Then around 1am I was awoken to a drunken roar alongside an increased volume exposion blasted through the speakers. The beer had been flowing, and my companions had become whipped into some masturbatory war fever. They were on the brink of their grand adventure, and it was going to be a thrilling and rewarding experience, much, if not exactly like the video game they were playing.

I pried open a dry eye and asked them to keep it down.

The friend, a person I'd never seen before, immediately threw down the controller, pitched his beer can to the ground and charged toward me. I stumbled up out of bed, ready to give him a worthy effort, and just as he approached me, the roommate came between us. He pushed and shoved him out of the way, apologizing to me while the friend knocked dishes off the counter, tried to topple my dresser, opened the 'fridge door and hollered threats at me the whole time.

I slinked over to the cabinet and took a shot from my small Irish whiskey bottle. I punched a kid in the nose when I was in 8th grade, but other than that, I've never been in a fight. He looked like a wild animal, unconcerned with any consequences of his behavior, living in the moment, completely convinced of his right to thrash me.

After I calmed down, and lay back down in my bed, I opened the book again. After a few pages, I heard a scratch outside my window. There was a block of wood that locked it from being opened from the outside, but I saw it start to shift. I heard him muttering and cursing under his breath at me. I swept the block away, opened the window and saw his bloodshot eyes staring at me through the screen. He jumped down off the ledge and ran away.

I stood there dumb with, I don't know, admiration of his imbecility? Who the hell was this savage? To have the insolence to threaten someone in their own home after screaming and hollering in a drunken state, then come back and try to break back in through the window? It was a stunning feat of self-assuredness.

I felt a red hot hatred for him, a lust that visited me at night. I wanted to see him embarrassed and beaten, and I wanted to do the beating.

I came home once after work and reached into the fridge to get a beer, and they were all gone. I asked my roommate what the deal was, and over his shoulder, (concentrating on the video game), he said "C. drank them all". He came in during the day and finished off 5 cans of beer!? Hot coals were being heaped upon my head. I fought him nightly in my mind, the madness of this sociopathic brute incensing me. I was obsessed, but not for long.

We mobilized, packed up our things, moved out of the building and caught the plane to Afghanistan.

I hadn't thought about him for months, and then one day, there he was.

He walked with tight legs, like he was flexing his gluteals. His rank was crooked on his chest, and his eyes were wide. He looked like a cart-pushing homeless man in some metropolitan gutter. He muttered under his breath and continued on with his strange gait towards me. He looked at me, stopped, and asked where the flight terminal was. I pointed out a direction, and then saw that he recognized me. The last time I saw him was through the window screen back in Kentucky. He said his hello, and I asked if he was all right. He told me that he was in an ambush recently, and saw an RPG round come at him and miss. He had just come back from R&R and had gotten arrested for domestic abuse and gotten a DUI on top of it all. He thanked me for the directions, and continued down the walkway with that stiff, gun-shy half-trot.

Orwell said revenge is never satisfying. He wrote of an SS man being beaten after the surrender in '45, and even though the man had no doubt committed countless atrocities, he could not gain any pleasure from seeing him supine and submissively absorbing a beating.

This man once bought a hot hatred from me, and then I would have been happy to see him suffer, but now... now he is a shadow. It is beside the point to say I felt no pleasure from his suffering. I felt despair for him. Psychological damage plus a penchant for drink and an eagerness for violence. I don't want to think what will become of him in the future.