Tuesday, July 13, 2010

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.

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