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.