Friday, December 31, 2010
Monday, December 27, 2010
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Monday, December 13, 2010
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
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
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
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.