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.

Monday, October 25, 2010

New Haircut and an Army jam session

According to my personal system, it was time to get another haircut. Army regulation states that one’s hair must be neat and orderly and conform to the outline of your head. My regulation says that one sergeant per day telling you to get a haircut is ok, but two per day is tiresome and leaves one vulnerable to an unauthorized instance of self-defense.

I walked up to the barber shop and saw a paper on the door.

“Closed until further notice by order of base commander.”

It was only a matter of time before Lai’s place got shut down. My only option now was to go to the other shop. I did so grudgingly. I’d never been, but I’m the kind of man that enjoys rituals and things familiar. I don’t like change, and especially don’t like new barbers.

“Assalamu alaykum” the young man greeted me. He wore a starched long white shirt, flawless. His face was round and his thick black hair was wavy and down to his shoulders. Afghans have probably the best hair I’ve ever seen. Thick and shaggy as lions’ manes, only a few bald scalps, and never any sickly thinning tops.

I mumble my response and lay my rifle on the ground and take my blouse off. We haggle over what I want done, and he asks me what number attachment for the clipper. I hate it when barbers ask me that. He picks up a snaggletoothed #2 and every mean swipe leaves a bunny trail for him to “eyeball” with his dull scissors. They squeak and grind and the hair is more ripped out than it is snipped off. I squint and flinch and he “tsk”s me. My mood worsens, and my eyes narrow into a half squint.

He has what looks like a straight razor, but it holds a tiny razor blade. He employs a used one and scrapes and drags it against my dry skin around my ears and nape. He chats and gossips with his mate, and they’re having a grand old time now they’ve lucked into a monopoly.

Finally, the mean charade is come to an end, and just as he motions to release the apron from my neck, he places his thick butcher’s hands on either side of my head and says “crack”. Not a question, not a warning, but a statement. I tense up just in time for his hands to wrench my neck to the left and right, loosening any vertebrae from their impertinent holding places.

I stood and reached into what moments before was my back pocket, and spitefully peeled off four limp dollar bills and stuffed them into his fist. He slapped me on my chest, which was now my back, and bade me well.

Of course Lai had to go. Of course we don’t have the South Korean goddesses they do in Bagram.

Later I saw a friend playing guitar at the Green Beans coffee shack. Black fella from Alabama, glorious bald shiny head. He had a few old wooden-combed harmonicas splayed out on the table, and was looking over some chord charts. He said he was just learning and loved the blues. He offered me the guitar, and I started picking around with some old Delta Blues chords. It was a Pakistani or Chinese guitar, muffled, cardboard sound, but I hadn’t played in months and it felt good.

At the beginning of a chord progression, he lets out in a clear, pure voice an old Muddy Waters lyric. It repeats and comes around for the payoff. We play and stomp our feet together, lost in the mystical purity of two brothers in music.

I used to have long jam sessions back in my brief stint at college. Folk songwriters, guys that made their own guitars, white guys with laser precision in their licks, and black guys that seemed to breathe an all-encompassing stream of music through their fingers. And me, a clunky hayseed kid doing his best.

My friend picks up an “A” harp and plays alongside me. He warbles and shakes the low register, reaches into the high and nearly breaks the notes from bending them so far. I lose myself in the intoxicating rhythm. We stamp our feet and I try not to sound so wound up alongside this vocal master. People start to look, girls start to look.

And then he sits down across from us.

He has veins coming from his forehead. His skin looks rough as leather, and his shirt is tight against his ridiculous muscles. He has tribal designs crawling up his neck, and a giant green spiderweb on each elbow. He looks like he just got back from the yard from his weekly Aryan board meeting.

He puts down a plastic GNC cup sweating with fresh protein shake. And he has a guitar. His ID card strapped to his half-cantaloupe bicep tells us he is a Staff Sergeant. “Hotel California” he says, not a question, not a warning.

The scent soon travels and there is another Sergeant with a guitar and another. And another. Soon there is a drowning wall of strumming in unison and hoarse throaty voices. Someone starts “Every Rose has a Thorn” next, and another guitar approaches. Someone pulls out a video camera and shoves it in the singer’s face, then sweeps to his guitar neck to document the 3 chord gymnastics. Then two Privates in the back strike up some Tenacious D and then venture into Dave Matthews for a bit of sincerity after the comedy didn’t work.

I handed my friend his guitar back while he was massaging his temples and told him we had to get together again and play some blues without any Sergeants around.

I snuck out, then went to a run after I heard the first bars of “Gimme Three Steps”.

Friday, October 08, 2010

ECP

After getting off a 2am flight, I was first reunited with the hot smell of Eastern Afghanistan. A ripe, gamey smell that had somehow left me. I doggedly dragged my feet across the runway, carrying my duffel bag, assault pack, armor and helmet to my little plywood room. I was back. I had to pay dearly for my small vacation, (reinforcing a bunker with two trailers full of sandbags, and now I could sense something coming down the pike.


Two days later, I was awakened by an angry pounding on my door. (No one raps on a door with a civilized knuckle; the entire fist must be vigorously employed.)


“Get up, you’re taking my guard shift!” a Staff Sergeant angrily informs me.


“All right, give me a minute. At our tower?”


“No, at the ECP. It’s a 12 hour shift. For 30 days.” He said.


“And you’re late.”


“Ffffuu OK, be ready in a minute.”


After walking a quarter of the way around the airfield, I met an unsmiling Staff Sergeant (pardon the redundancy) with a clipboard.


“You’re late”, he grumbled.


And thus began my payment for R&R. A 12 hour shift, with mandatory PT for 2 hours afterwards. Up at 3:30 am, and back around 7:30 pm.


The first day was awful. I had such high training, and was tasked for such a mean detail. My pride was hurt. I saw only the worst in this new situation. But slowly, it changed for me. I began to talk to the Afghans, the local workers and the Security Forces. They were warm and genuine, eager to make friends. If you gave a greeting and a handshake to any of them, the next day you were close friends. I scored some shampoo for one ASG (Security) that asked for some, and the next day he invited me to sit with him and his comrades at their table. Styrofoam cups were placed in front of the chairs and a giant metal teapot was produced and steaming hot green tea was poured. My comrade added some chow hall sugar into my cup and stirred it around with his pen. I looked down, unaccustomed to real tea, the leaves loose in my cup. It was delicious. Hot and properly steeped, and sweet. Now I understood the attraction to this drink.

A stack of still-warm flat bread was produced and broken. Clusters of tiny green grapes were set on newsprint, and we all pitched in. The bread was soft and fragrant, and I had never tasted grapes sweeter. They spoke a little English for my sake, and we got along tolerably well with hand signals and stolen words.


The actual work wasn’t awful. Sitting guard on the tower, or “wanding” incoming workers with a metal detector, checking “taskeras” (Identification papers). Though, inspecting the incoming sewage trucks was unpleasant. I only regret having one nose to give in the service of my country.


The taskera station was equipped with a full body scanning X-ray machine. My first week on duty, during a lull in traffic, I looked to my left and saw a full-bird Colonel staring at me. I flinched and bade him good morrow, and through squinted rough eyes, asked me what that big contraption over in the corner yonder was. I had no clue how to work it, but I wasn’t going to let a little detail like that stand in my way. I told him to stand in front of the large gray panel, and I took a seat at a computer monitor. I saw a list of tasks, and navigated the arrow buttons to highlight one that said “BEGIN SCAN”.


“Hold still, sir,” I said, as if I knew what I was doing.


After the machine stopped humming and thumping and smoking, I told him to look at the monitor.


And there he was.


Apparently the X-rays only probe down so far, oh for instance, just underneath the layer of clothes. So I stood there bullshitting my way through explaining the intricacies of this sophisticated piece of machinery…all the while a picture of a naked man with a pistol strapped to his hip was on the monitor. I tried not to look at the Colonel’s…bald headed eagle, but, well, let’s draw the curtain on this painful memory.


I found myself becoming fast friends with my comrades. The same happened in Basic and in my 2 weeks at the Replacement battalion when I first got to the Division. My fellow soldiers not in the Intelligence field are much easier to get along with. They’re rougher and cruder, but make fast friends. Long discussions were held while we sat at the vehicle inspection station. A line of trucks came in every half hour or so, and we’d have to get up and climb up in them and search for weapons or bombs. I prayed that if I were to buy it, I wouldn’t buy it from an excrement filled truck explosion.


Some of the mushbrains bragged about turning up the trucker’s radios all the way, or hiding things in the glove box, but I tried to be good to the drivers. We sat and chatted about the heat and Afghani food until they were cleared to proceed into the base. One time, a driver leaned out of his window and under-handed me a giant red ball. He “salaam”-ed me and I waved back. It was a giant pomegranate. I sliced it in half and handed one to my comrade H, and we sat in the cool shade, out of the hot sun and scooped fleshy red seeds out of the fruit and spit the spent grainy seeds into the dusty road. We felt almost like free men, away from the Sergeants, enjoying an unexpected treat not approved or sanctioned by the US Department of Defense. A small rebellion.


Anything pleasurable is a rebellion. Anything rebellious is pleasurable.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Leave II

A mere few days after I was in Afghanistan, I found myself launching the old brown wooden boat into the East branch of the Choctawhatchee River. The old man was seated next to the motor, and we eased a few hundred yards until we reached the river opening. The river was still and peaceful, and I gazed at the bloated Cypress trees growing out of the water, thinning out after a few feet. Haunting gray clumps of Spanish moss hung down from the branches, and I felt at home again.

Florida has always possessed a powerful hold on me. The Spanish ghosts can be felt in some quiet corners yet. The tourists and sunglasses huts I can do without, but in the still quiet places, there is magic.

We caught a mess of bream and one catfish on the slow river. I had forgotten the smell of worms on my fingers and fish slime on a coke can, the delicacies of my boyhood. I gave the old man a cigar and we both bit and spit our tips into the water. Blue smoke clung into the still air, and I remember seeing him on brutal mosquito-infested mornings light up a cheroot to keep the insects away. I remember the sweet smell of the smoke, the pleasing image of my old man and his cigar, puffing and waving the smoke around us, a North Florida incense.

We fried them up that night for dinner, cole slaw and cheese grits on the side and sweet tea in real glasses. (I hadn’t eaten on a real plate or drank from a glass in months. You forget the feel of civilization when you live off of Styrofoam takeout containers and plastic forks)

Some will cringe, but you that do have not lived yet. After you’ve peeled the delicate dorsal fin off the crisp fish and slide your teeth down its bones, collecting all the hot flaky flesh, after there is nothing left on the carcass, the best part is the tail. It gives a beautiful crunch, the consistency of a potato chip, and is the perfect last sendoff to the noble North Florida bluegill.

Before I arrived, my mother dusted off the French press I bought her for Christmas, and we ground the beans while the water boiled. We sat around the table drinking coffee, my nephew still awake and cooing and laughing at us worshipping him. He’s around 16 months, and is now able to walk around and make known his desires. He is enamored of anything with a motor. He loves music and food. And women. I showed him a video of sultry Eartha Kitt singing and flirting with the camera, and he stopped and took notice. He perks up at the sound of a motorcycle and makes rumbling noises. I took him for a ride on the old four-wheeler, and while sitting in front of me, he spit out his pacifier so he could push us along faster with his engine noises.

I love him deeply and can’t wait to do uncle things with him, order a pizza and watch action movies that my sister won’t let him watch, show him my old record collection, introduce him to Mark Twain and Elia Kazan.

We went offshore a few days later. Black Snapper season was in, and we were going to give them hell. The water was rough and the sky was cloudy, but the boat owner wanted to go out, so we obliged him. We stopped at a preset location on his GPS machine and made ready our hooks. We had a live well full of little Chofers and some frozen cigar minnows. I hooked one and went to the bottom. In true fashion, the old man got on first. He is the most natural outdoorsman I’ve ever seen. He does not thump his chest and the only bragging he does is on the account of those with him. But he is consistently the one who catches the biggest and most fish. He exudes something from the line that is irresistible to anything swimming. As a boy, I would always silently try to outdo him, but could never manage it. That day on the Gulf, he got on again and again, but with Red Snapper and Grouper too small to keep. I found my niche and they finally started to bite. The Reds knew they would be thrown back and were happy to trade a nice breakfast for a short trip to the surface, but the Blacks were wary of this free meal. But how they fought for those 100 feet, the thick deep sea rod bending and quivering, and the anticipation of whether or not it would be a Red or Black, and the occasional Black Snapper and Triggerfish thrown into the ice-box assured a good dinner that night.

We all saw the old man silently fighting something big. In true fashion, he didn’t announce it or whoop or shout, but let someone else notice it. He had put on a big Chofer and on the way down, it was eaten by a 30 pound Cobia. He pulled the rod, wound in line, let the fish run, pulled him in some more. The first two eyes of the rod dipped underneath the water, and after a while a gaff was at the ready and the fish was thrown thrashing into the ice-box. The old man sat on the side of the boat, grinning and shrugging off the congratulations by the other fisherman.

He grilled them that night with his lemon butter sauce, and I fried some potatoes. Mom made her banana pudding, and after dinner, we sat on the rocking chairs and drank coffee and Dad and I smoked cigars.

My ears ache at the quiet stillness of the old country home. Afghanistan is a constant mechanical hum. Air conditioner units, generators, airplanes and helicopters, there is never a quiet moment. But here, I can hear the Spanish moss whisper to each other. I can hear the hoof beats of the old horses, and the rusty metal of the Spaniards’ helmets.

I revisit my favorite restaurants and have a few drinks at a few places, have a sandwich and tomato soup at Liza’s, but spend a lot of time at the bookstore with a cup of coffee. To be surrounded with more books than you could read, more ideas you could process, more poetry and beauty than your mind could process in 10 years is a beautiful feeling.

The time passed quickly, and I found myself sitting at the beach the night before I had to leave. I snuck onto the property in front of one of the giant ghost-condos that the real-estate boom erected and the economy crash left nearly deserted. I sprawled out on a beach chair and smoked my chewed cigar. The stars weren’t out, and I couldn’t see the water, but I buried my toes in the cool sand and listened. The waves came in and out just like they did when I was a boy. Exactly the same as they did when Galileo’s trial was happening, when the Roman Empire was booming, when there were no human ears on the planet to hear them, they still crashed and lapped the sandy shore.

I will hear the whisper of my homeland when I am back in my tiny pine-walled barracks. When I am sucking MRAP exhaust fumes on ludicrous PT tests, I will see the flash of a Red Snapper swirling in the water beneath me. I will miss this place when I am gone.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Leave


“Leave”: The magical word on the tip of my tongue for 4 months. A period of indulgence and rest, to be away from Afghanistan and work while everyone else is still there. I piled into a blue Huey helicopter, hearing “Fortunate Son” in my mind as I looked out the window and heard the rotors thump and high pitched whine of the engine increase. We sailed past the Tora Boras, lush green landscape, and the towns and homes next to the river gave way to the barren rocky wasteland before we reached Bagram. Bagram is a cool, fresh air respite, an oasis in the burning mountain country. We turned in our weapons and waited for our flight outside of the USO. The sun was subtle on our shoulders and the cool north wind whispered at our ears, and my heart was sick with excitement to be going home. Ramadan just started, the election season is heating up, and I get to go home for break.
I left my cigars back in Jalalabad, and took a long walk to the PX and bought two Cuesta Rey Tuscans. I had lunch at the chow hall and took a leisurely stroll back to the USO center. The flight wasn’t until 1am, and the weather was perfect for a cigar and a coffee. I signed in and grabbed a styrofoam cup and filled it with the strong black coffee and retreated as fast as I could outside. There was a giant TV and very expensive speakers inside the building, and the only movies the American soldier can tolerate is something with lots of torture and women victims screaming in agony, or something with fast cars, loud machinegun fire, explosions, or anything based on a comic strip or toy from their childhood. I smoked and read until sunset brought a chill in the air most welcome. I watched jets roar past on the runway, their afterburners flaming and touching the asphalt as the plane angled upward on its takeoff. The muezzins haunting voice carried through the air for the last prayer of the day. It was Ramadan, and the sun had set, and water was being drunk after a long dusty day in the sun. I saw construction workers looking tired all day, despite the relative coolness of the central Afghan climes. I heard outgoing mortars thumping the outside landscape, and I remembered the scene in “Lawrence of Arabia” when Omar Sharif gazed at the horizon as the British artillery flashed and boomed, he said “God help them who lie under that”. “They are Taliban” my inner Lawrence reminded me. “God help them”.
We flew to Qatar, and then Kuwait. At Kuwait, the thermometer only went up to 120, and the needle was leaning on the number, trying to break free of its constraint. It is a flat desert country, a blistering, scorching oven. There were rocks covering the ground, and after being baked all day, when the sun sets, the rocks continue to radiate an obscene heat. Perhaps two hours pass, and temperatures drop to a cool 105. I can’t imagine being a member of the nomadic tribe that decided to stop there and settle. I nearly dehydrate walking to the bathroom and back to the tent. I slept all day, not wanting to move.
I went to the PX, and saw a little bazaar surrounding it. I tried to speak some Arabic to the shopkeepers, but they looked at me with blank faces. They were all Pakistani or Filipino. I’ve decided I won’t speak Arabic to anyone as long as I’m in the Army, in spite of the 2 years they set aside to teach me the damn language.
On the bus to the airport, I saw 3 pairs of BMWs or Land Rovers on the side of the road, freshly after running into each other. The two drivers stood uncaringly outside their vehicles, waiting for the tow trucks to come. I saw one car barrel out of a merge lane and slam into the bus in front of us. I saw a light bulb, part of the fender, and shards of plastic tumble on the road, and we stopped for 5 minutes, then proceeded to the airport.
The giant plane with an engine in the tail took us to Leipzig. The flight attendants were all distinguished gray-haired Germans with impeccable dress and vocabulary. They were quite the opposite of the plane full of rough and rude American soldiers they were forced to serve. The distinguished gentleman with a perfectly groomed silver moustache and ruddy good looks made his way down the aisle serving drinks. “Would you care for a drink tonight?” he asked with perfect diction, to every person with whom he spoke. “Pehpsi”, the Texan said, without looking up. “Sprite”, the black kid from Atlanta said, interrupting him. The intercom beeped softly, and a soothing voice with the slightest of German accent came over the speaker. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to World Airways, we will be serving dinner momentarily. The choices for tonight’s cuisine will be grilled chicken with cream sauce and vegetables, or tortellini with a marinara sauce. If the two entrees are not what you had desired, please accept our sincerest apologies. Bon App├ętit”. Such dulcet tones, such sophistication and class, and she a mere flight attendant. What of the high society types of Europe, I could only imagine the level of grace and civility they should possess.
“Chik’n” the Texan snapped at Hans with the dinner cart.
“I’ll have the tortellini, Hans,” I said. “Danke.”
He looked at me with eyebrow cocked and lips pursed, his European hackles raised.
The flight to Atlanta was stocked with an American crew. Southerners with thick accents and impatient eyes. “Tuh-day’s menyoo is Sahzbuhry Stayk ‘n gravy, or grilled chik’n ‘n veggies”, the twangy voice erupted over the speakers. What a difference a day makes.
When the plane landed and I felt like a horse jumping at the starting gate, we were forced to line up and go through several checkpoints where stamps crashed onto our leave forms, cramping the paper with blue and red and black official looking markings. I found the direction to the Florida terminal and made my way towards it. I found myself beaming at every person that passed me. Little children skipping and excited to fly, their bags strapped to their shoulders smacking against their backs. Beautiful young women with shorts and athletic, graceful legs, sandals flapping against their feet, hair feathered and gorgeous, my heart lunging out of my chest looking at each one, but seeing only bored, cold expressions. What cruelty, what tragedy it was to be ignored by these obscenely beautiful women.
An old man shook my hand and said he was in the 82nd during Vietnam. I smiled and squeezed his shoulder and thanked him for it, telling him he had it much worse than any of us did.
The little two-engine plane touched down in the new airport in the swampy runway north of Panama City Beach and the humidity pushed down on my shoulders as I climbed down the stairs. I was tempted to kneel down and kiss the ground.
As I made my way through the terminal and onto the baggage carousel, I saw them. My family always in good fun overdoes it with the patriotism. I see half a dozen people with American flags waving and faces beaming . I smile and embrace my mother and do the same to my father and sister. My young nephew is there, 15 months old and he doesn’t remember me from Christmas or the weekend the family got together before I left. He’s beautiful, though and I take him in my arms and kiss him on the cheek. My retired First Sergeant buddy is there with a Davidoff cigar in his hand for me. He’s got an AK-47 scar on his leg and a .38 on his chest. He’s earned 2 purple hearts and half a dozen bronze stars since ‘Nam, and I always love hearing about the old days before safety belts and PT uniforms.
The 15 day countdown starts at midnight. I have an eternity of free time stretching out before me. No mortars, no PT, no sergeants, no latrine graffiti, but cigars and oysters and grilled grouper and my toes buried in the gulf sand. What a relief. I can’t quite beat my sword into plowshares yet, but in good time, all in good time.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sandbag Detail


Holding the rank of a lower enlisted man in his majesty's army, I am entitled to a few certain priviledges not privy to the higher ranks. Such as filling a Humvee trailer and bed with sandbags (about 200 a trip, 2 trips) and reinforcing the outside of a concrete bunker. We got 5 Afghan locals to fill up the bags and me and a comrade had the pleasant task of chucking them on the trailer as soon as the blackguards had them filled.
It started a slight drizzle, and the brown devils started using the green bags as articles of clothing. They adorned them as capes, tying the little white string about their necks, one on each foot for waders, and most ridiculous of all, I had 5 heathen pontiffs surrounding me with green plastic mitres affixed atop their heads. They wore them regally with no sign of embarrassment. They waved graciously at American soldiers walking by, blessing them when hearing whistles and catcalls.
Once the swarthy assassins realized they weren't going to be the ones loading and unloading the bags, they made sure to fill the bags as full as possible, then pat them down with the shovel and shove a bit more in. They even scooped stray rocks lying around into the bulging green bags, a-chattering and cooing in their unintelligible heathen tongues, feigning ignorance at our precise King's Diction. We told them in plainest terms available to us mean and simple soldiers to please limit the gravel input to no more than 49%, and that any more would betray our Christian integrity in calling these profane things "sandbags".
They nodded excitedly and "salaam"-ed me and carried on with their shovel fulls of geology.
Other than that little diversion, it's been exceedingly dull. I am comforted with the idea of soon having a dozen Appalachicola oysters on the half shell and a bottle of ale to try to lift my spirits. They are stubborn things, my spirits. If one bottle won't answer, then two will. Three will be too many, and then four won't be enough.


Friday, August 06, 2010

Lai


I have a few tricks here where I am able to get a small share of beauty and escape from the steady diet of gristle and bitter wine gleefully given me by my “superiors”. I have to do it in secret, for the military man has an uncanny sense of detection concerning the arts. Not that he appreciates it; he is far beyond that in his masculinity. But if anyone in a quarter mile is reading a book over 200 pages and without pictures, or a movie being watched that was not based on Hasbro action figures or a Sunday comic strip, be sure that he will find it out. His quiver will be full of stinging barbs, and he will gleefully employ them. Even knowing the name of a play or musical is certain proof of a man’s limp-wristedness. If you put cream or sugar in your coffee you are gay. If you eat a corndog or pick up a banana to put in your corn flakes at the chow hall, you might as well be the drum major (ette?) at the West Hollywood Pride Parade, resplendent in leather chaps, a bullwhip, a pink tutu, and General McAuliffe in Arlington spinning in his grave.

On my laptop I have a video of two modern ballet dancers. Watch how they circle each other, how they move with stunning grace and fluidity, whose limbs entwine and separate, all to a mournful cello movement. This is routine for them, to surround themselves with art and beauty and even make a living from it.

I have a Korean cellist playing Haydn’s concerto finale and some Paganini variations. Her eyes dance with the conductor, urging him to keep up. She is beauty incarnate. The tempo in the “variations” decreases and she plays with such concentration and passion. Her lips gulp air in short swallows, as if forcing herself this duty.

I have Chaplin’s “City Lights”. It’s a movie not made by committee, but the vision of one man. He composed the music, he ran his own studio, and he made all the decisions. I defy you to watch that final scene when the formerly blind flower girl recognizes him, and not be struck down by it.
When the vintage is especially bitter and my teeth stained with the dregs, I have a secret weapon. When I hear the mushbrains wax barbaric about what they would do to that attractive girl that just walked by. Or when I feel nauseated after using the latrines, seeing the hate-filled, racist, sexually violent, illiterate scratchings on the stalls that could be mistaken for a 1937 Mississippi Klan outhouse, I go to Lai.

My hair grows slow, and I always tell her not to cut it too short, so I can come back sooner. I get off late, and I always find her still working. There’s never anyone there, so she takes her time. She’s probably 50 and from the Philippines, and like all Army barbers, she has hands of silk. She steadies your head by keeping her hand on your neck. Her clippers hum hypnotically and move in small strokes over your ears and across your nape. She eventually changes to her scissors and uses small snips and takes off a pinch of hair at a time. She uses such care and employs no rush in her trade, and you are thankful. For one year, this is the only affection you are entitled to. 

When Lai finishes with her clippers and scissors, she plucks a new razor blade from the box. She puts warm shaving cream on your neck, and with small gentle movements, trims your sideburns, shaves a perfect arc over your ear, and tidies up the nape of your neck.

She finishes with a short neck massage with her warm soft hands, your too short ration of female tenderness for the half-month, and lastly, frantically musses up your hair with a laugh.

To hell with Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch, I've got Lai.