Wednesday, July 28, 2010

First Care Package

It's been only one month and already I am restless. Trudging the dusty gravel sidewalks, the furnace blast eastern Afghanistan summer air. 84 hour workweeks. The same schedule every day. Wake up, work, lunch, work, PT, dinner, work, then read a bit and sleep. The days go by, nameless. I forget what month it is, even the year. I am stuck in a timeless vacuum of existence with no landmarks to help guide me.

Then one day as I signed my weapon in at the CP before heading to the gym, the Puerto Rican lady at the office saw me, and with her singsong accent poured honey in my ears, saying "Ju got a package toda-ay".

My heart rolled. I had had my fill of the rind of the melon, the gristle of the chop, and now I was set for something substantive and nourishing.
I hurriedly scribbled my initials on the form and walked calmly to my room. I wasn't about to open my treasure chest in front of people at the company. Hungry eyes and high ranks bode poorly for a lower enlisted boy.

Home, I flicked the blade from my knife and hungrily sliced the tape from the box. I savored the moment before discovery, and then dove in.

Candied pecans and cashews from Trader Joe's, real tortilla chips and garlic lime salsa, bruschetta (is this real or a dream?). Pencils, good pens, journal notebooks, the Christopher Hitchens memoirs wrapped up in time for my upcoming birthday.

And a small bag. Could it be? My heart quickened. I opened it, and in doing, released a leathery rich aroma into my small room. Cigars. My God, good cigars. I have been smoking dried twigs compared to these miracles. There was even a humidor packet in the bag. Also enclosed was the familiar business card from my favorite shop back on Alvarado Street.

I am a Raja. A Xerxes. A Caesar returned in glory from some obscenely successful campaign. My wagons are loaded with treasure. My horses strain and sweat at the colossal weight of it all. I am overcome with riches.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Guard Duty

Had tower guard for the first time. I found it relaxing. I shared the tower with an Afghan soldier who spoke as much English as I did Pashtu. I offered him one of my atrocious cigars, which he declined. He noticed my torch lighter with a silent and hungry gaze. After lighting my cigar, I handed it to him. He fumbled with the switch and smiled when the jet flame leapt out. He handed it back to me, and I extended my hand, motioning for him to keep it. His eyes flashed at me and proudly tried to refuse it. I insisted, and clasped his shoulder and pushed his outstretched hand back towards his chest. He beamed at me, and fished out a 10 Afghani note from his wallet. I mocked outrage and told him I'd have none of it. He searched his pockets and found a limp box of Pakistani matches with a bootleg Donald Duck painted on the cover. I marveled at his generosity, I shook the box to my ear and smiled. I struck one of the blue tipped matches and touched up one side of the cigar that didn't light properly. I shook his hand and thanked him.

I went outside and smoked in the late afternoon air. Due to some thick gray clouds, it was not entirely unpleasant. There was a small farm across the gravel road, corn, fruit trees, cows, sheep, boys off in the distance playing cricket. It was a welcome sight, being unable to see any dull army buildings or equipment.

An inch into the putrid cigar, I saw a young boy pedaling a thin framed white bicycle. He was having a hard time at it, the road being gravel and four of his mates piled on the seat, the handlebars, the front and rear bumpers. They saw me up in the tower and immediately jumped off and started chattering. They bent down and found small sticks and smoked them with me, making dramatic movements bringing the wood cigarettes to their lips and blowing elegant imaginary smoke. The pilot of the bike, a daredevil, rode far behind his friends and at a blazing speed, took off and braked hard and turned sharp, skidding superbly on the gravel road. His head snapped towards me, his eyes searching for a reaction, and beamed when he saw my thumbs up. They showed me their cricket bowling with round rocks found on the road, and just then the Afghan soldier came onto the tower. The boys saw him, jumped on the bike, and strenuous were the pilot's efforts to get going. I guess they knew some were more impressed with their charms than others.

I looked off into the distance and saw a young girl wearing a long dark red cloak. Her hair was covered with a dark brown shawl. She lay on her back on a small stone wall and with a long stick, traced the clouds in the sky. Her leg was bent, one knee in the air, and her other foot dangled and bounced against the wall. Abruptly, wakened from this fancy, she looked to her left and saw an old black goat and a faded sheep wandering away from the fields. She stood, dusted herself off and tramped in a great circle and flanked them before they reached the road. She was fluid in her motions, her stick coming down expertly upon the haunches of the errant goat. She took great strides and shortly the beasts were back in their place and she returned back to her spot on the stone wall.

I am enchanted with these people. They belong to another age. They move with a dignity and confidence that I certainly do not possess. A people that belong somewhere. It's refreshing.

I respect what I've learned about the Pashtun culture. One tribe was insultingly called "The Ungovernables" by a kingdom attempting to conquer them. They took it as a compliment. "Ungovernable" meant to them unwilling to submit.

There is a bit of a scandal going on now. Certain foreign aid services are being accused of spreading Christianity to the Afghans. There have been public demonstrations and calls for harsh punishment and expulsion of the workers. It's because no Pashtun would offer his other cheek when one had been struck. Nor will he be told to love his enemies. Tell a Panjshiri that he must humble himself and carry another man's cloak not just the one mile required, but an extra. The teachings of the Nazarine cult are not admirable to a man with a Shinwar heart beating in his chest. His religion is one of resistance and struggle, and he is a zealous practitioner.

Settling in

At Bagram, our tent was next to the Polish troops. They were intimidating looking fellows. Stout and square jawed, hands thick as hog farmers. We were just normal people in uniforms. Short and ordinary. These Europeans looked natural in the theater of war. They sunned themselves in the daytime with ridiculous Speedos and sandals. It didn't take away from their ferocity like it would me.
We saw some locals at work at a grill outside a chow hall and decided to stop in. They had ribs, chopped BBQ, chicken wings, a nice feast with real food instead of the frozen staples of Army contracted meal service.

Touched down finally at our FOB courtesy of Molsen Air. Got some good photos of the landscape and mountains. When we flew over Jalalabad, I could see people playing cricket next to the river. We stepped off the bird, and a blast of furnace wind hit us in the face. It was a good 15 degrees hotter than Bagram. We lugged our two giant duffel bags, assault pack, armor and rifle a few hundred yards to the bus. Then we drove to the company. A sergeant told us we had to have everything lined up facing the same way. After we did all that, a Lieutenant came out of the building and told us to bring the bags inside the building and line them all up facing the same way. After she watched us place the last bag on the office floor, she told us that now she wanted the Charlie Company bags outside with the Bravo Company bags inside, lined up, facing the same way.

We were shown our barracks, and my heart sank. It was four plywood walls about 7X7, 10 rooms in all. There was a bed that took up half the room and just space enough for a little plastic bureau. My home for one year, Jesus. I unpacked my clothes and left the useless stuff back in my bags. Gas masks, chemical suits, boots, etc. I found my towel and soap and headed for the showers. I found there is a special knack needed in order to get the water just right. First, turn the cold water on all the way. That'll give you a nice limp trickle. Then, standing as far away from the shower head, hold your breath and touch the hot water dial as delicately as possible. A great industrial burst of water will gush forth from the spigot and burn a hole through the curtain, melt the rubber floormat, and eat through the metal beneath it. And through this great influx of steam, you should have enough moisture to soap up. Using your towel wrapped hand, strike a fast blow at the hot water faucet, careful not to scald your skin, and with the dribbling of cold water you can rinse off the remainder of the soap that the steam didn't burn off.

So feeling refreshed and anew, I sought after an agreeable meal. There were lots of locals there, wearing hairnets. Over their beards. Dinner was hot and plenty: fried chicken, fried rice, fried cheese sticks, little fried balls of buffalo chicken stuffed with spicy spray cheese, onion rings, and french fries with chili and cheese.

I waddled my way back to the room and lay down on my bed. There was a nice film of fine sandy dust waiting for me on my sheets. Hacking and sneezing, my pink lungs adjusting to the new environment, I settled in for my first night of sleep in my new home.

And then I heard a great explosion as I was nearly asleep. The loudspeaker screeched and wailed and then a voice, perfectly calm, said "incoming incoming" in dulcid, bored tones. Then another shriek and squeal of the siren.

I was new to the company, just out of training. And in training, you were not allowed to leave the tent during a mortar drill unless you had your armor on. So in the dark, I fished under my bed for my body armor, threw it on, put my helmet on my head and grabbed my weapon. I was wearing my flip flops I just bought at the PX, the only size available stocked for the drummer boy detachment. I plopped into the bunker, and looked around and saw no one else was wearing their armor.

And I had put mine on backwards.

Next day I got tasked for crossing guard duty at the airfield. The week previous, two Master Sergeants nearly got plastered all over the runway because they tried to run for it on a red light. So logically, to prevent it from happening again, create a roster of lower enlisted men to stand guard on the broiling hot asphalt on a 125 degree afternoon to tell the cream of America's crop which color means go and which one doesn't.

As I was out there, a Humvee parked in front of the gate entrance beside the runway. A Lieutenant Colonel told me to clear off everybody in line behind the gate. A Black Hawk helicopter descended and landed. A flock of bald headed Colonels jumped out of the bird, stuffy looking with their body armor. Then the old man jumped out. Two stars on his chest. Salutes were rendered and returned, and a way was cleared. The officers stripped themselves of their armor and piled into the Humvee. There were journalists with their black helmets and tan bulletproof vests doing the same. Just at that moment, a "gator" came speeding by (an open aired vehicle, a bit bigger than a golf cart). A ferocious Staff Sergeant with a beautiful moustache was behind the wheel. He came to a crashing halt and jerked up the hand break. "What the fuck is going on here!?" he screams to the full bird Colonel. "You're blocking my runway sir, I'm going to have to ask you to clear out of the way"

"We've got a 2 star here, Sergeant" the Colonel snapped.

"I don't care if you've got a 3, 4, or 5 star here, you're blocking my fucking runway and if there's a Medivac that lands and needs to get a soldier off the bird and to the med station, then we'll have to wait for you to move your ass out of the way, sir."

I'm assuming it was a combination of the logic in his argument, and every soldier's memory of a screaming E-6 as the first authority figure that got to the good Colonel and scooted His Generalship along.

I was free after two hours and exhausted. I was unused to this kind of heat, but they say you climatize eventually.

As I was walking back home, I met an Afghan soldier about my age with an AK47 slung about his shoulder. I threw him a "Salaamu Alaikum" and his eyes flashed and his tongue loosed a great peal of Pashtu. I didn't understand a word of it, and he introduced himself and we shook hands and in broken English he assured me that this part of the country is perfectly safe, no Taliban here whatsoever. I smiled and accepted his gift. As we parted ways, he placed his hand on his heart, and I did the same.

I had brought some atrocious cigars to hold me until I could order some good ones. I was afraid of bringing the good ones, that they might break en route. So I brought bad ones, and I knew that my luck would never let cheap cigars go to ruin. So I smoked these bundles of straw, these chicken bones. They were dry and awful, and would crack when you cut the tip and unravel when you smoked them. The taste was sharp and hot and dry, but it was still a cigar. Bad cigars serve their own purpose, they let you appreciate the excellent ones all the better.

One night on my way home, I saw a Major and a Captain sitting outside on the deck chairs. The air was cool and still and I saw two orange embers floating in the darkness. The smell of the rich, leathery smoke nearly made my eyes roll back in my head. Forgetting myself, I asked "Whatcha burnin?" All I heard was a grunt from the Major, and collecting my wits, I briskly walked away back to my bundles of paper and dried grass which I lustily choked through.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Off to War

When going off to war, saying goodbye to your father is different from saying it to your mother. Your father is worried, surely, but he has a look in his eyes of pride. His son, rifle in hand, away to something honorable and masculine. A thing respectable that gives him capital with others. He will get claps on the shoulder from other men in celebration of this ancient thing. But a mother sees it differently. There is raw logic within her that transcends adventure and honor and perhaps even pities it. I might wear the uniform and carry the rifle, but she is still able to effortlessly summon up the image of a helpless and vulnerable babe, utterly dependent upon her for sustenance and protection. She can see the boy afraid of thunderstorms and darkness, and one whose peace of mind was attained with a smile and a caress on the cheek. No, she will not be swayed with my assurances of body armor and bulletproof Humvee doors, all these are irrelevant. She might even think I’m trying to buy her peace of mind with these extravagant assurances. Shaking my father’s hand gave me a proud lump in my throat, but my mother’s red eyes nearly crippled me.

So, our trip...

The powers that be decided to chance it and gave our flight the go-ahead in spite of the Icelandic volcano canceling half the world's flights. We lined up at dusk and waited on the cool Kentucky grass with our rifles and assault packs and body armor for the final word to board the plane. We all piled in after checking our bags, and as we took our seats we heard a flight attendant over the intercom: "make sure to store your weapon securely under your seat", a first for me on an airplane.

We headed across the ocean, and Faro, Portugal was the only place that would let us land. It was a hot Sunday morning, and we could see the beach about half a mile away. We flew over hotels, resorts and sailboat harbors, and I yearned to stop there instead of Afghanistan. We were allowed to get off the plane and stretch our legs, and I stared into the sky at the giant kites flying on the beach just beyond the airport. We waited for about 4 hours for the deciders to find the next stop on this journey.

Later in the afternoon found us in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. We had to stay on board this time. While the plane was being refueled, the jet fumes wafting delicately through the air, someone had snuck out on the stairway and lit a cigarette.

From there, we traveled northeast and arrived in Bulgaria at 5:00 am, the second sunrise of our trip. It was a tiny airport, and they let us off again. We swarmed in the duty-free shop to the great surprise of the sleepy looking girl behind the counter. We all bought some candy and trinkets. I was tempted to buy a carton of Galouises, the brand Christopher Hitchens smokes.

We stayed and watched the sunrise and set our course for Romania. We stayed in the airport terminal for a few hours, and we got the news that we wouldn't be flying out that night. I had the picture of sleeping on the cold tile floors or on the chairs, but we were told to line up outside and wait for a bus. We were going to be put up for the night in a hotel, and the thought of a bed was intoxicating.

We went back into the plane and grabbed our overnight necessities. As this was happening, a 1st Sergeant walked into the cabin and asked for 4 volunteers. Two Privates out of Basic out of sheer madness and habit volunteered. He needed two more and he was right in front of me. Oh please sweet God don’t let him make eye contact with me. I knew what he wanted, people to stay on board and guard the weapons. That meant no hotel and no sleep and no food and no shower and no bed. I channeled my “Demian” and forced him to look somewhere else, which he mercifully did. Two other poor bastards got the honor of staying behind.

I remember as we weaved through traffic, seeing a car full of children that gave toothy grins and thumbs up to which I returned. I saw an "Arc d'Triumphe" and a 1918 war memorial.

We eventually made it to the hotel. It was a giant Howard Johnson's, and it was remarkable. The stunning brunette behind the counter gave me my own key. I was NOT expecting that. To have my own room... My God, the luxury was unfathomable. It was 7pm and she very decently told me that dinner would be served in the upstairs restaurant until 8:30. As in, there's plenty of time to make use of the bathing facilities conveniently located in my room.

I was starving. The plane had run out of food and water, and just had Coke in the coolers, so I dashed up the stairs and found myself in the smoking room just outside the restaurant doors. I was one of the first soldiers there, and found a small table to myself.

I opened the bottle of sparkling water and laid the napkin on my lap. In no time, a hot bowl of soup and basket of fresh rolls were placed in front of me. I sipped the soup appreciatively from the heavy fat spoon. I remember Arianna, a brown haired Florentine angel from high school, an exchange student that taught me European table manners. I tore a small bit of bread, buttered it, and chewed it slowly.

As I finished my soup, the rest of the soldiers started to stampede into the dining room. They argued loudly about who would sit where. Tables were scraped across the floor to join with others. Rolls were devoured with monstrous bites from hairy fists. Soup was sopped with the bread replaced by the crisp waiters. Shouts were loosed from the tables for more butter, always more butter. This one foil wrapped pad per bread will never do, the bunch of Gypsies, trying to short-change us.

The entree' was rosemary chicken and mushrooms with roasted potatoes. Banquet food, but good. I looked around and saw knives ripping through meat, great flanks of it being shoveled into dripping mouths, waiters’ elbows being snatched and asked for ketchup and Ranch dressing for the taters.

It was dinner and a show, and I was enjoying it immensely. Until dessert was finished. It was lovely, vanilla mousse with a shell of dark chocolate. There was even a dainty silver spoon with which to enjoy it.

I saw a Sergeant with flame tattoos licking up his neck empty out his sparkling water bottle. He fished the little black can out of his pocket, the size of a hockey puck and held it with his thumb and forefinger. After he gave it 4 or 5 vigorous shakes, he twisted it open and extracted a thick pinch of the stuff and lodged it into his bottom lip. I stood up and tried to walk away, but couldn't.  I was forced to watch as he placed his lip onto the rim, and because it was a large glass bottle, the awful sound was amplified.


And then a bubbling brown streak oozed slowly down the glass and pooled around the bottom.

I made my way to the room and spent 10 minutes figuring out how to turn the light on. (You had to put the key card into a little slit next to the light switch.)

I was on the 15th floor and could see a good distance. I looked upon an old woman hanging laundry to dry outside her apartment, workers on the Coca-Cola sign, cars silently crawling by off into the distance.

I drew a bath and utilized all the potions and salts and elixirs next to the sink. I eased into the hot water and exhaled deeply. There was a soft bathrobe hanging on the door, slippers in the closet, and a big soft bed in the next room just for me. I had just eaten a 3 course meal and I had 12 glorious hours until I had to do anything.

I let out a snort, a gasp that took me by surprise, and it turned into a snicker and then a loud ridiculous laugh that made my ribs ache. It was all so absurd. I was on the way to war? Then what on earth was I doing here? I couldn't tell if I was going mad or dreaming or if it was real.

We left the next morning after a breakfast of smoked fish and lemon, cheeses and breads and jams and smoked meats and fruit and coffee. Back into the belly of the airplane and boxed food.

I saw the giant grey abandoned airport in Kyrgyzstan, and finally stepped off an Air Force bird in Bagram, Afghanistan just after sunset the next day. It was flat, but off in the distance like a dream were the mountains. Mountains like I’d never seen. Craggy and rough and steep, with snow on the very top even though the air was hot. Later when it got cloudy, the mountaintops blurred the line between the heavens and the earth, as if undoing Genesis.

One comrade said he’d been deployed three times and this was set to be the strangest.

We’ll see.