Monday, October 25, 2010

New Haircut and an Army jam session

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.