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.

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