Beyond The Pale

Terp Tales, Shit Happens Boss

I’m enjoying one of the great pleasures of deployment: eating filthy. I’m soaking wet with sweat, my face is smeared with grime, and my shirt looks like I got skidded over by a semi. The only clean part of my body is the palms of my hands, which I scrubbed down perfunctorily on the five foot trip from the gym to the chow hall. You can’t get away with this crap in garrison. Actually, you can’t get away with it at the larger bases here in country. But when you are one of twenty-some Americans within shooting distance, well, people make allowances.

Sometimes you just make allowances.

I’m watching the news, or trying to watch the news. But the satellite is confused, so I’m thinking about my record player, the one Andrea got me for my birthday, the one that I’ve never seen because it didn’t arrive at the house until I’d already left the country. I’m pretty sure if I took that horrible Green Day record, the one that sounded like it was probably just the rejected tracks from American Idiot, and drew zig zags all over it with my knife, smeared some peanut butter on it, and shot it a couple times, it would probably sound like the news does right not. I love military technology.

Hamza walks in.

–Hey Boss! Bundle drop today. You hear?

–Hey Hamza. No I didn’t hear about any bundle drop. You know when it’s supposed to happen?

Hamza walks over to the chow line and grabs tray, forks two big porc chops onto it, and comes over to sit across from me.

–About an hour. Maybe they will miss this time. Did you hear about the time they missed?

The Air Force must use us for training new pilots. They miss all the time. Last week they dropped a whole pallet of Dr. Pepper over the side of the ridge so that we couldn’t get any vehicles up to take it back to the base. I had a lot of fun throwing cans of pop down into the valley and watching them explode. They’ve also dropped pallets right on top of us while we wait to go gather them up. The first time that I was involved in a bundle drop here at Cobra, it ended up looking like some kind of rodeo. The bird started to fly over, we released a smoke grenade to let the pilot know where to drop the bundles, and as soon as he saw the smoke, instead of waiting until he was in position, he just dropped everything right on our heads. A few of the parachutes didn’t open, and the bundles commenced what we call “burning in.” Men scattered in all directions, hopping on four wheelers and GMVs, or just flat out sprinting for their lives. One guy didn’t get out of the impact area in time and almost got hit by one of the pallets. Parachute or not, if one of those things hits you, you splash.

Imagine this coming down on your head

–I guess I haven’t heard about them missing a drop, Hamza. What happened?

–Boss, one time, they drop the pallets right on the base.

–What do you mean by “on” Hamza.

–Look up.

I look up. The ceiling joist, a 4 inch I beam directly above my head, looks like it’s been bent into a pretzel shape and inexpertly straightened back out. I’ve seen it before but never really remarked on it. After all, this is Afghanistan, and poor workmanship is the modus operandi for this whole country, SOP for us military types. Now I really notice it for the first time, and it’s not just the beam that’s busted, the tiles that it supports are all cracked and shattered, some of them even missing. Obviously, the damage happened in place, not before installation.

–A bundle hit there. Hamza says. They were coming down all over the base. Boom, boom, boom. We were lucky no one got killed. I think they might have gotten one of the dogs!

Right then, the Omega Male walks in.

–Hey Jeremy, I say. What’s up?

–Hey David. He waves at me. He pauses and glares at Hamza. Kuni, I hear him mumble under his breath. Fag. Hamza doesn’t hear him. I know this because Jeremy keeps right on living. He walks to the line and grabs some food for himself, sits it on the table at the back of the chow hall and goes to the cooler to get two cokes and a Gatorade shake.

–What’s his problem? I ask Hamza.

–He is the pussy. Hamza says. You are not believing what we did to him last night. Jonny and I run screaming into his room and beat the fuck out of him in the dark. He cried.

Hamza starts laughing viciously and picks up one of his pork chops to eat with his hands, like a hot pocket. Deployed Army food is generally, um, bad, so if an item is supposed to be tough, it’ll be really tender (think soggy bread), and if it’s supposed to be tender, it’ll either be tough, or so tender that you wonder how many days it’s had to decay before making it to the line. I firmly believe that the lobster they insist on serving us from time to time was actually caught before I stopped eating through my navel. In this case, the pork has roughly the texture of twelve year old beef jerky, so Hamza holds it two handed, bites into it to get a grip, and then jerks his head off to the right as hard as he can, while pulling left with his hands. A bit of the meat tears off, and he commences the lengthy process of chewing.

–And then, he says around the food in his mouth, we wait until he went to the shitter this morning. He chose the stinkiest one, with the most shit in the bucket, and we lock him in. He is locked in the shitter from eight until eleven! Hamza swallows. I would kill someone who did that to me, but he doesn’t even have balls to ask who did it to him. But he knows it’s me.

Hamza smiles in what is, I think, supposed to be a mischievous way. He tears at another bite of the pork chop.

This is Hamza.

Suddenly it dawns on me what he’s eating.

–Hamza, I ask, you are a Muslim aren’t you?

–Of course. All Afghanis are Muslim.

That’s not completely true, but I’m not going to disabuse him of the notion.

–You know what you are eating, right?

–Yes, meat.

–Yeah, Hamza, but that meat is a pork chop.

–So?

–Pork is pig.

He swallows and looks at me calmly, stares at the pork chop in his hand, looks back at me, and takes another, larger bite of the pork.

–Shit happens boss.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | Army, NOT SAFE FOR RLC/NWAG CROWD, Terp Tales, Travel | 3 Comments

Terp Tales, Meet Hamza

Operation Enduring Freedom XVI. A different year, a different place. The enemy, he never changes though. Neither do the interpreters. They are still about as quirky as Windows Vista and as arrogant as America herself. Kings, fighting amongst themselves for supremacy in their microcosmic hierarchy of who gets to fleece the Americans more.

There’s an obese mouth breather sitting by the fire in my compound, drinking tea he made from water I boiled for my coffee.

–Who are you?

–I’m sorry sah?

He’s clearly a terp. That sense of entitlement. That almost but not quite English.

–You’re the new terp?

–Yes sah.

–What’s your name?

–I’m sorry sah?

–What. Is. Your. Name? I squat down by the fire and dump two half liter bottles of water into the cast iron kettle and sit it back over the coals.

–Ah. I am Jeremy sah.

–Stop calling me that.

–I’m sorry sah?

–Stop calling me sir. My name is David.

–Ah. Ok.

–Ok. Don’t drink my water. He looks abashed. He knows he should have refilled the kettle when he dried it.

–Ok sah. Sorry sah.

–David.

–Sorry sah. It’s like a scene from a low budget film.

I need a terp who speaks English. Jeremy clearly isn’t going to do the trick. Sherrif, AKA. Steve-Dave, and Jonny Amir Karit were cuddling in the terp hut last night, but at this time of morning, who know’s what you’re going to walk in on. I check my watch. Thursday. Don’t knock. Don’t open the door. Stand outside and yell, just in case.

–TAJI MAN! I yell with my head against the door.

The door cracks opened and a sphere of hair, broken by a slit of crusty, swolen black eyes pokes through the crack. Last night’s hash hasn’t worn off yet. It’s like someone painted Keith Green brown and sent him forward in time to write bing bong songs in Afghanland.

–What’s up David?

–I need a terp to listen to something for me. You free Jonny?

–Sure, why not?

He closes the door, and sounds abstracted directly from a Laurel and Hardy skit begin to pipe through the chimney, the mouth of which pukes smoke beside the door, right into my face. From the swearing, I think that Jonny must be walking on everyone in the room, looking for his boots. “Sure, why not?” is Jonny’s catch expression, which he thinks means “of course” or “right away,” and we put up with it for the most part, those of us who know him, but it’s always funny when a new guy to the team asks him to do something and he says “sure, why not?” Just as my mom never really asked me to take out the garbage when I was a kid. We never really ask Jonny to interpret for us. We tell him politely, but when he drops that line on new guys, they tend to stop being polite.

I walk back into the courtyard and direct my attention toward the fire. There’s steam pouring from the mouth of the kettle, so I unhook the metal cup I attached to my belt when I woke up and pour in two packets of powdered “Via Starbucks” instant espresso, top them with the almost boiling water, and set about stirring with my pocket knife. Jonny is taking forever, and I’m starting to think about having Jeremy help me—or maybe going over and stopping up that chimney—when I hear a motorcycle roll up next to the side door of the compound and die. Machine gun fire doesn’t ensue, so I can guess that the partner forces have decided that whoever was driving it wasn’t a threat, which at this time of day, in this location, means it’s got to be the one and only…

–Hamza! I yell.

–Hey Boss, what the fuck is going on up in this place? He responds amiably with his bizarre accent that I’m not even going to try to spell.

–Where you been dude? I haven’t seen you in weeks. I open the compound gate, and he thrusts his wiry body through the gap to give me a hug and offer me a cigarette, which I take with relish and only realize is a Pine when I cough my lungs into a bloody heap on the ground a moment later.

–I went to work for the other team in Sarab. But I’m quitting because there’s no action there at all. I am not a terp for talking. I am a terp for killing Taliban.

–No action at all? I ask him. I’ve heard that the Sons of Uruzgan, as they call themselves have been doing fairly good work.

–I fucked all the elders’ daughters. And now I’m bored. I want to work for you guys and fight again. Check out my new boots boss.

I see that he’s wearing Jonny’s boots, and he’s written his name on the heel with sharpie marker.

I shake my head and chuckle, pour him a cup of coffee, and we set to work.

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Army, NOT SAFE FOR RLC/NWAG CROWD, Terp Tales, Travel | 2 Comments

Terp Tales, Carjacked

This isn’t really going to be much of a post compared to the length of what I usually write, but I can’t pass up on this one. Actually, if I’d thought of it sooner, I might have a whole other series of blog entries called “Terp Tales.” Maybe next rotation.

Anyway, I was standing on the top of a mountain talking to a terp today, and since he is an American citizen, I asked him where he lived when he was in the states and how long he’d been there. He said he’d lived there for 17 years, and that he lived in Oakland. This naturally led to conversations about when Andrea and I were living in California and the trail run that I ran in the Oakland area. From there, we went to jobs, specifically what we’d done before we decided to go work for the United States Government. He said that he sold electronics, which tells me that he was probably a dealer in stolen goods, but I could be wrong. He said that he also drove a Limousine on the side while he was getting his electronics company up and running.

“One time,” he said, “I had a guy get into my limo and put a gun to my head. He said ‘get out of the car, and leave your keys and wallet.” I have NO idea why you would want to steal a limo. Talk about standing out in the crowd.

The terp continued. He said, “It’s not big enough.”

“What’s not big enough?” the carjacker asked.

“Your gun. You can’t carjack people with a gun this small. Here, would you like to use mine?” The terp asked and pulled out his .44.

Apparently, the carjacker was either working with a replica Snatch style, or he didn’t realize that having the drop on someone is more important than what caliber weapon you used because he just yelled “He has a real gun!,” jumped out of the car, and ran away.

Terps are full of these stories, most of which probably aren’t true, but maybe next time around, I’ll collect them and pass them around to those of you who bump into this site.

January 10, 2010 Posted by | Army, Terp Tales, Travel | 3 Comments

A Poem, Smoking Last Night

Last night, standing under

a streetlight by the wall,

staring at my shadow and

wondering at its crispness, its poise

I raised a cheap, Afghani

cigarette to my mouth and

watched my shadow do the same.

I pulled smoke in to taste and watch

the cherry instead of brightening to

an amber glow in my eyes,

darken to blackness eclipsing the night like

the morning sun eclipses all stars

and I glanced at the wall just in time to see

my shadow grow blurred, a glow fading

from the tip of its grainy, concrete fingers.

October 31, 2009 Posted by | Army, Poems, Travel | Leave a comment

The First Cigarette of the Day

I’m back. Well, not exactly. Actually, I’m the furthest thing in the world from back if you are counting in miles, but things seem to be settling into a routine here, and that means that in the curiously disembodied manner possible only on the internet, I might be more back than I ever would be were I home in North Carolina, or Ohio, Missouri, or wherever I happen to be claiming at the moment.
But what to write about? Those writers who actually get paid to write probably feel like they should either jump back into whatever project they were working on when they left or give some accounting for where they have been. I tend to feel neither of those necessities. Rather, I prefer to lube the gears, as it were, with a first post by writing about, well, nothing. To be more specific, my First Post Back type posts tend to be what I have historically called Journal Type Entries, and consisted of nothing but, well, journal type entries. Today, I’m breaking from this pattern.
Instead, I’m going to talk about Cigarettes.
I’ve been doing some research lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that The First Cigarette of the Day isn’t, for the introspective practitioner the same thing that it is depicted to be in novels where the protagonist wakes up with the taste of last night’s pre-sleep stogy on his breath and the rasp of forty more still turning his voice into the voice of an old lady who says “doll” much too frequently.
That first cigarette doesn’t uncurl nicotine-starved fingers, doesn’t relieve some itching burning longing that a mother or father or unfortunately-not-pedophilic teacher, baby sitter, camp counselor, or friend’s parent never satisfied, leaving a void that must, therefore, be filled with carcinogenic vapor, doesn’t make the day worth living, doesn’t make the rain go away or the birds sing a little louder. But it is something special nonetheless.
For my source, it’s a moment of serenity, a moment for him and no one else. Purely Randian. A moment that he uses to remind himself that no matter how far he is from everything that he holds dear, he was always really alone all along anyway and even now is never really alone at all.
He says this holds true even if other smokers surround him, talking about the things they talk about, which fall under one of two headings: nothing and women.
It’s a ritual. Almost a sacrament. The rote actions of folding back the lambskin pouch in which he keeps a handful of loose tobacco and papers, taking out a crumpled package of Smoking Black 1 ¼, peeling one away from the others, with its semi translucent picture of a cartoon top hat and the one cursive word that says it all: smoking, holding that single leaf carefully weaved among the thumb index and middle fingers of his right hand while his left thumb and index fingers pinch around in the tobacco, looking for whatever bit the arid desert air hasn’t dehydrated too much yet, finding just enough between the folds of soft hide, spreading the shredded leaves evenly along the middle fold in the paper and wrapping the whole arrangement between the newly formed unity of three fingers-cum-dowels, each one meeting its opposite tip to tip, rolling, compacting the tobacco gently, aiming for density that will let the cigarette draw hard enough for a thick, cool, toasted tasting smoke: these are the rites of this sacrament. And they require some care, for any mistake will make for a bad cigarette. If the tobacco is too loose the smoke will burn like coffee left in the pot too long, too tight and the cigarette will go out again and again and again. He let this happen yesterday, and his goatee hairs are still shriveled and crispy looking from where he lit them on fire while trying to relight the stumpy-yet-not-cached cigarette.
Finally, the fold. The thumbs bow out, leaving the work for more delicate digits, which flip the side of the paper closet to him down behind the gummed edge. Then the mouth gets involved, and the tongue darts out to lightly caress the exposed gum strip. Some people who roll their own cigarettes start at one side and work their way across. He doesn’t. He starts in the middle, licks left, licks right, and folds the paper down.
The cigarette complete, he digs around in his pocket for a lighter. He says that he tries to always have on with him, even if he isn’t smoking, because so many smokers always seem to need to bum one. I asked if matches wouldn’t match his leitmotif better, and he said they would, but they weren’t practical.
He flicks the flint with the left hand while protecting the flame with the right, applies the flame to the tip of the cigarette and puffs a bit until it catches. He says that Dutch or hand-rolled cigarettes don’t burn as readily as pre-packaged cigarettes because the tobacco he buys doesn’t have as many nasty chemicals in it, so getting lit and staying that way can be something of a dance. Just another part of the ritual.
At last, he actually draws the smoke into his mouth and holds it there, pauses almost imperceptibly, closes his eyes, and inhales. He tries not to talk. He says that one of the spiritual disciplines is silence, a fasting from speech, not only verbal, but internal. He believes that this internal silence is as important as prayer, that this is the moment in which God speaks, the still small voice. For the American mind, the discipline if silence has almost been completely lost, and it is terribly difficult to find true solitude in a world where we are constantly bombarded with noise. That First Cigarette is the time that he has set aside to just exist, silently, without words, without conscious thought.
This ritual is not the construction and consumption of a cigarette, but an ordering of the world, a taking of the time to disconnect from the goings on around him and in him and focus his conscious mind on a simple action and a simple pleasure, and in the process to give his unconscious mind the opportunity to find its center, set its bearing, reconnect with God.
Perhaps as a habit, it isn’t the healthiest of physical rituals, but as an expression of a spiritual discipline, a sacrament, well, that’s something else entirely.

August 1, 2009 Posted by | Army, Christianity, Travel | 6 Comments

Where I’ve Been This Last Month — Part 2

I had guard duty today. That was nice, I guess, sitting out in the sun reading and writing in my journal. My arms are fairly well toasted though, as are the tops of my knees.

Dad and I rolled out of Monterey a little bit before 1:00 pm. I was driving; seeing as it was my junk that we were about to drag across the country, I figured that the least I could do was take the first shift. We took the southern route through the mountains because when we were planning, we didn’t know whether or not there was going to be storms further north, not having traveled through that part of the country often before.

There was a restaurant about 6 hours from our starting point called Tom’s that Andrea and her mom had eaten at on their way through about a year ago, and we made a hard push to get there in time for dinner. Andrea had loved the place, and I promised her that I would do everything I could to try to get to eat there. We made it about 7:30, after driving through some of the prettiest brown countryside that I’ve seen (though a green corn field does more for me than the most beautiful desert in the world), and some pretty cool wind fields. Dad wondered why some were spinning and others weren’t, and we finally decided that it must be because the ones that weren’t were down for some kind of maintenance.

Tom’s Burgers was pretty much abandoned except a gigantic couple, the male part of which was so fat that he couldn’t even walk to the counter to order, and ordered our burgers. I got an avocado and bacon burger. Dad just got a burger. We ate. We stared at each other. I pretended I wasn’t staring at the gigantic fat dude. We got up and left.

In the parking lot, I said, “Andrea and Jean must have been really hungry when they stopped there to love it that much.”

“No kidding,” Dad replied, “You want me to take over?”

“Nah, you should sleep for a while, and I’ll wake you up when I can’t take it anymore.”

We drove across the street to gas up, and I ran into the Starbucks there to order a “Black Eye,” which is a dark coffee with two shots of espresso in it, my favorite not-candy-coffee-drink, but they were out of coffee, so I just ordered a triple shot. The workers protested that they would have coffee ready in about five minutes, but I wasn’t willing to wait because I had a blushing bride waiting with bated breath back in the heartland—where there is precipitation—and wanted to get moving, so they gave me a quadruple for the price of three. I thought that was nice of them.

When I got in the truck, Dad was astonished at the small cup I was carrying, so I talked him into tasting it, which took some cajoling. Just as he was raising the cup to his lips, he breathed through his nose, caught a whiff, coughed, and asked me why I would inflict something like that on myself. So much for getting him to taste.

Back on the road, Dad sacked out, and I started watching the first new Star Wars movie. I know. It’s dangerous. You don’t need to tell me. It won’t change my behavior.  For those who are going to harass me, I have two rationalizations: 1) I’d rather run off the road because I swerved a bit much on an abandoned road while watching a movie in the middle of the night than die because I fell asleep from boredom, and 2) I got it honest, only now we have laptops, so I don’t have to do like Dad did when we were kids and find a place to put the TV and VCR between the front seats.

About 5:00 the following morning, having just finished Episode Three, I had a micro-second of narcolepsy, one of those ever so frightening head-bobs that can get people killed, and I immediately woke dad up and headed for the next exit, where we traded off and I got to curl up and sleep.

About nine o’clock, we stopped for breakfast in Albuquerque, and I got Dad to eat at an IHOP for what he said was the first time in about 30 years. Sadly, it wasn’t the best IHOP I’ve been to. Actually it was the worst, which meant that it was only mildly awesome.

Dad wasn’t impressed.

Back in the truck, I had a genius idea that could make life much easier for both Dad and myself, but I’m mature enough to know a bad plan when I see it, so I didn’t even bother to mention it to Dad. About three hours later, dad woke me up at a gas station to say that he needed to sleep some, and as I was grogging to consciousness, he sat staring ahead of him like he was wrestling with an internal conundrum. Finally, he turned to me and said, “Do you think we could clear that couch in the back of the truck?”

Ah ha! I knew that my idiocy came from somewhere. What a horrible, retarded, dangerous, insurance liability nullifying idea!

“Yeah, I was thinking about that earlier,” was my reply. “I think that we could move the kayak over to the other side of the truck and use a couple boxes of books to brace it there.”

As I locked him into the truck, I said “call me on your cell if you need anything.”

“Try not to wreck,” he replied.

Roughly twenty-four hours later, forty eight hours and 2500 miles from the time that we started our little expedition, having stopped only for food, gas, and once in Springfield, Missouri to pick up a ladder I had left in my house there, we arrived at my parents’ home in Dublin, Ohio where that afternoon I would see my sorely missed wife.

May 3, 2009 Posted by | Journal Style Entries, Travel | 3 Comments

Where I’ve Been This Last Month

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but not from laziness, per se, more from lack of access to the internets. In the month-plus since my last post, I’ve gone to airborne school in Ft. Benning, Georgia, Driven across the country—literally—and finally gotten signed into my unit. Now I’m getting ready to leave again.

Before actually going, all my knowledge of airborne school came from Band of Brothers and some cryptic remarks that my already-airborne-qualified friends had made about keeping feet and legs together and calling people dirty, nasty legs. It turns out that airborne is just like any other school that I have been to, not nearly as hard as it is made out to be, but just as gay as people claim. From my perspective it looked like a two week “you can’t sue me; I trained you well” course that could have been done over a weekend, followed by a couple days of sitting on a bench, not allowed to fall asleep or talk, waiting to jump out of a plane. If that sounds retarded and boring, it is. If it sounds like it wouldn’t be worth the wait though, it is worth every second of it.

Jumping out of “a perfectly good airplane,” as people are so fond of saying, is an experience that I find hard to explain. Most people just call it a rush, and it is; those two or three minutes of waiting for the green light to jump and the two or three seconds of waiting for the chute to open are pure adrenalin. Some of my friends said they were scared of jumping. I was scared that I would hesitate and be disappointed with myself. When I jump and start to count, “one thousand, two thousand three thou—“ (I never made it to four thousand, which is when you start thinking about activating your reserve) and then the parachute catches me, I don’t have time to feel any kind of internal rush because I’m busy.

The word that I would use to describe the overall experience isn’t “rush” or “exciting” or any of those things, though it is all of them. Rather, I would call it serene. Since I’ve been in the Army, I’ve found that it is often difficult to find the time to just enjoy a moment of unrequired silence (it doesn’t count when people are forcing you to do it and yelling at all the people who don’t have the disciple to stay silent), but the minute or so between the opening of the chute and preparing to land is great. It is a time to feel the stillness of the world, the quiet. Every time that I jumped, I found myself praying on the way down, and I wasn’t praying that I wouldn’t break my leg; I was praying in thanks to God for creating such a beautiful world that I hadn’t had opportunity to see from quite that angle before. That moment, suspended there alone with God and the gentle noise of the world made all the stupidity of the previous weeks obsolete.

As soon as airborne school was done, I hopped a plane for California (we graduated at 11:00 and I was in a taxi headed for Atlanta by 12:00). When I moved to Texas, I left all of my stuff out there in storage, and Dad and I had planned on meeting out there to bring it back. Our plans were foiled by the airlines though because we ended up arriving in Monterey not only on the same flight, but sitting right next to each other. Matt, a friend from church, was kind enough to pick us up at the airport and drive us to the Naval Post Graduate School, where I had rented a room for the night, and the next morning he picked us up and drove us over to the Budget Truck rental place in Salinas. Before we picked up the truck, though, we stopped at a restaurant place called Elli’s, which had the biggest plates that I have ever seen. From Budget, we said goodbye to Matt, and Dad and I headed over to the storage unit, filling the truck in about an hour, and rolling out of Monterey before 1:00 pm.

From there we started our drive across the country, which I’ll write about tomorrow.

May 2, 2009 Posted by | Army, Journal Style Entries, Travel | 3 Comments