Friday, December 31, 2010

The Attack

I eased onto the passenger seat of the gator behind the barracks and propped my feet up on the dash. I raised my paper cup in the direction of the charred crater to the southwest. 
It had started different from any other. What woke me was the sound of a man's death. The moment that started my day ended his.
The explosion shook the walls of my room. After a confusing half minute, the loudspeaker started wailing, then followed by the calm voiced announcer. I kicked my feet into my sandals, grabbed my rifle, and dove into the squat concrete bunker. 
God, that was a loud one. Was it a mortar, an RPG, what? My comrades and I all looked at each other like grinning imbeciles. A few nervous jokes were exchanged, then a head poked into the shelter and said "Gear up!"
We ran back to our rooms and shimmied into our armor and helmet and met up at the company. The explosion was a car bomb trying to breach our wall. The plan was that after a hole big enough was made, the bomber's friends could crawl in and start their business on us. I was told to post next to some cover in front of the wall and be ready for another explosion, and kill anyone that climbed through the breach. 
I saw a spindle of black smoke rising in the air to the south, and our towers were firing their 240s, but where? Then I heard my first AK-47 bark. It was directly in front of me, just past the wall. My opponent and I were facing each other. He still fired at me, his bullets whistling over my head. I heard the tower firing, and saw some of its rounds kick up dust on the wall in front of me, but I could see nothing of my enemy past it.
And then the hornet's nest was shaken. The Kiowas chains were unclasped and they roared through the air, past the wall. They turned about and swooped low and loosed missiles from their bulging quiver. Each rocket echoed in my chest as it struck upon the earth. At least two other comrades and me pumped our fist into the air and let out a simultaneous cathartic yawp. 
The firing and explosions died down after a while and then stopped. We were all alive, without exception. Our would-be murderers were not. We were released from guarding the wall, and I went to my room and stripped my armor from my soaking limp body. Normalcy returned. But this was my first attack. I had never been under fire before. My God but it was potent stuff. And thus I came down from this high.
The loudspeaker proclaimed an "all clear" after a while. I took a shower and shave and went about my day.
A new sensation entered my system. Elation. I was beaming. I felt I was stifling a laugh at a funeral, like an emotion unacceptable and best to be hidden was trying to escape.
The cruelty of it all was that I had no way to celebrate. I wanted a giant bottle of wine that would stain my lips black and stick to my tongue. I wanted warm bread and cheeses and black unpitted olives served across a big square bed and a woman with fire in her eyes and hunger in her touch.
I had one luxury, but it would have to wait until after work. I had 3 left over from a care package. The work day finally came to an end, and I found a box of pineapple juice and a paper cup of crushed ice at the chow hall. They had plums and apricots, and the fruit is always good in Afghanistan. In American chow halls, the apples are mealy and the oranges are dry and the grapes are soft. But here... oh but here.
I brought my feast behind the barracks and unsheathed a black cigar. I had changed into my black shorts and gray shirt. Sitting on the gator seat, I squeezed the juice out until my cup was full of the sweet vintage. I swirled it round to get it cold, and the first sip coated my tongue with the delicious sweet stuff. 
I applied the torch lighter to the end of the cigar, lighting it without drawing. After it glowed orange I blew out, ridding it of unpleasant burnt taste. It was glorious. I lustily bit into the apricot, letting the juice run down my arm and then I lay back in the seat. Blue smoke was rising from the cigar tip, and the stars were shining brilliantly. The crescent moon was blood red off in the distance and I was alive, and was going to live until I took my last breath.
I held the cigar between sticky fingers and savored the comforting dark tobacco and sat smoking in glorious reverent silence.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hero photos

"You need to go get another hero picture taken," I was told after a long day of work.

The hero pic. A stoic photograph of you in uniform standing in front of the flag. Why? In case you get killed and they can hang your shot on the wall with the other heroes. Sure, he died for a good cause, the ninth year of providing the warm blanket of freedom to 300 million people by supporting a narco-trafficking family that were busboys in Maryland a decade ago.

Back in the states, it was a solemn affair. I fixed my eyes on the camera lens and tried not to blink. I was going to make a respectable face beyond the grave if the photo ever needed to be hung.

Then a long trip to Asia, settling in, and getting used to a small living arrangement and constant work hours. The LT lost the camera, so everyone in the company had to take another hero photo. I didn't care as much this time around, repetition robbing the solemnity from the occasion.

A month later: "Go to the CP, you need to take another hero picture. Sergeant so and so lost the memory card on the camera."

I stood in front of the flag like some criminal too familiar with the mugshot. I gave a toothy grin, unzipped my blouse a few inches and slid a hand into the breast. I thought it looked damned good and added a touch of history and flair to the whole grim business, but the unsmiling sergeant photographer shared none of my enthusiasm. "Stop screwing around, do you want the Division to think you were some kind of jackass?"

"First, I don't think I'll care too much what people will think if this picture ever gets framed, and second, I'll be back in a few weeks after you realize you're pointing the camera the wrong way."

I get a lot of counseling statements.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Soviet Resort

We had a meeting the other day with some UN representatives, and had to travel to their small base nearby. The chopper ride lasted 4 minutes and 12 seconds, but the differences were profound.

There were trees and old hotel buildings, gardens filled with fragrant and colorful flowers. I could smell savory Afghan cuisine being carried by the breeze. There was an old drained swimming pool, and the sounds and smells of livestock just out side of the gate. Turns out, this is an old Soviet R&R base. The hotels were for the higher-ups, and I heard a rumor that the Russians used to throw mujahideen into the pool and watch them drown. When the Afghan fighters took over the base, they said the pool was empty, and some Soviets were marched into the deep end and shot. "There were still bullet holes and stains on the concrete in 2001," someone told me. It's probably untrue, but I still strained hard at the walls looking for any trace of previous atrocity.

I found it odd that the godless Communist Soviets almost 30 years ago had more sense of the aesthetic than the leading world's power does now.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Julie What's-her-name

Not every Christmas, but occasionally, when I am feeling reflective or nostalgic, I hear a song or see someone that reminds me of her. It was my first year at University, and I was playing baritone sax in the Jazz band. We borrowed a girl from the choir department for the lead vocals. She had hair like corn silk, and a youthful round face, dimples on each full cheek, and a small beauty mark above her upper lip. Her eyes were a haunting transparent green, and I fell in love with her the first moment I saw her.

We started up a bouncing "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town", and her quiet nature she possessed while the director introduced her vanished. Her voice was strong, but soft and comforting. She was a beautiful alto, and had a broad and easy smile. I was sick with heartache. She was from Seattle, cultured and interesting and cruelly out of reach. I was terrified of her. I know I would ruin any chance with her by being so intimidated, so I cut my losses early and ached for her while being safely out of reach.

She wore a simple black dress the night of the concert. She sang with her fingers lightly touching the microphone stand, and her soft voice filled the air with warmth that echoed through the auditorium. We all shook hands after the concert and I never saw her again.