Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Screwball Comedy of War (an excerpt)

On this day five years ago, I was sitting in a C-130 on the hot tarmac of a Kuwaiti airfield, trying to get back to the war.  I was just coming off a two-week leave back home and now, along with about four dozen other soldiers who'd had their batteries recharged, the Army was trying to get us back to Baghdad.  It wasn't as easy as it sounds.  There were delays upon delays--mostly mechanical malfunctions with our aircraft.  The two-hour hop from Kuwait to Baghdad stretched to nearly two days.

I recorded it all in my journal and later put it through the Sausage Factory of Fiction when writing this novel.  The story of my screwball return to the war has been transformed into Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr.'s equally-screwball initial arrival to the combat theater.  Like me, Gooding had been stationed in Kuwait for nearly two months, helping his unit push its soldiers north into the battle, joining them only after the last man had passed through.  Also like me, this is Gooding's first combat deployment, so his nerves are understandably frayed.

This excerpt is from Gooding's journal, parts of which are scattered throughout the novel.

Feb. 19, 2005: I’m sitting in a hangar at Ali Al Salem Air Base now.  We’ve arrived here after an hour bus ride through the desert—finally turning our backs for good on Camp Buehring.  We’ve strapped on our flak vests, our Load-Bearing Vests, our helmets and we’ve got our rifles in our right hands.  This is it.  No more halcyon days in Kuwait; we’re heading into a maelstrom of political chaos and angry zealots.  My stomach is in knots.  My brain buzzes.

On the bus, I put on my headphones, press play on my iPod and sit back, my flak vest digging into my throat, as I listen to Rickie Lee Jones, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen and Alanis Morrisette.  For an hour, I’m transported back to a life that seems so far gone now—driving around in my Subaru with the stereo cranked, listening to these same songs.  I close my eyes and, for the space of a song, I’m back in Georgia with the herons lifting from the marsh grass and the fast-food billboards whipping past the window.

Here at Ali Al Salem, we’re strung out on cots, folding chairs and, in some cases, flat out on the floor.  This is our holding area before we board the flight in a couple of hours.  The stink of unemptied latrines just outside seeps in each time someone opens the door, its unoiled hinges screeching like a metal fingernail scraped across a metal blackboard.  There’s a large-screen TV at one end of the room.  Gilligan’s Island is playing at full volume.  The Skipper is (again!) slapping his hat on Gilligan’s head and doing his slow burn.  Some of us try to sleep, but it’s fitful, what with the feces-urine perfume and “Now you’ve done it, Gilligan!” and the howling door.  People close their eyes and use their helmets as pillows, but I can’t fathom how they’re able to escape into dreams.

I strap on my headphones and fire up the iPod again. Now Sinead O’Connor is belting and screeching her anti-war plea:
Listen to the man in the liquor store—
He says “Doesn’t anybody wanna drink before the war”

Outside, another plane revs its engines, ready to take another load of us to the heart of war.
Feb. 20, 2005:  At 3 a.m., with a dime-bright moon blazing down on us, we walked single-file across the airstrip and climbed onto the back of the C-130, its large metal tongue hanging down, ready to swallow us into the belly of the beast.  This was my first ride on a C-130—more than 16 years in the Army and my first C-130 ride!—so I tried to take in all the details, even though I was in a sleep-fog and already exhausted from wearing my flak vest and ten pounds of ammunition.  Two bench-like seats run the entire length of the aircraft, with another pair in the center which splits the plane in half.  The seats are made of canvas, supported by a webbing of straps, so it’s like sitting on a really, really, really uncomfortable cot.  There’s only about 18 inches between the side seats and the center seats, so we have to turn sideways to walk toward the front of the plane, where we all sit, ass-to-ass, elbow-to-elbow and knee-to-knee with the person sitting across from us.  Add our carry-on bags, weapons and the bulk of our flak vests (which immediately go up to our necks and begin a slow, two-hour strangulation) and there’s barely room to breathe.  Where you plant your feet is where they stay the entire trip, unless you’re able to coordinate with the guy facing you in a complicated tango of legs and boots.  Within two minutes of sitting down, our asses have gone numb and no matter which way we try to angle our butt cheeks, they won’t come back to life until the plane touches down and we’re able to stand again, our knees wobbling and trembling as they remember their function.

It’s dark inside the belly of the plane, the only illumination comes from small overhead dim-blue lights.  I look around and think how everyone looks like they’re at a rave, faces barely visible in the midnight-blue darkness.  The crew members make final checks, push our pallet of baggage onto the back of the plane, and give the pilots the thumbs up to bring the engines to roaring, whining, throbbing life.  This is the symphonic prelude to war, the crescendo to the moment the doors re-open and we’re walking into the hot throat of war.

Then the engines die with a sputtering whine.  We look at each other, pulling out our earplugs, raising our puzzled eyebrows.

The crew members chatter to each other on their headsets.  The guy sitting across from me—my knee-knocking buddy—is able to catch part of what they say.  He leans over and shouts to me: “Bad engine!”

Later, I learn it had something to do with a reverse turbo thruster that wasn’t working.

We deplane, march back across the tarmac.  The moon shines down, impassive.

Four Hours Later: There’s a pigeon who has taken up residence in the tent.  He shows no fear of us, in fact he comes right up to our feet as we’re eating our MREs, his beady-eyed head cocking back and forth as our cracker crumbs sprinkle to the floor.  I think, What a boring life for this bird, panhandling each group of tired, hungry, unshaven GIs who rotate through this tent.  He might just have it worse than us at this point—but just barely.

We’re told a replacement plane will land at 11:30.  When it does, we get on a bus and drive out to spot farther along the tarmac, about two miles away.  We can see the open belly of the C-130, we can almost touch our bags on the pallet which is on the forklift standing nearby.  The bus driver senses something’s wrong.  He gets out to confer with the flight crew.  His shoulders slump.  It doesn’t look good.  He comes back and tells us, “Maintenance problems…and the plane needs to be refueled.”  We drive back to the tent.  The pigeon doesn’t seem too surprised to see us.  He cocks his head and waits for us to start eating MREs again.

We stretch out on cots and most of us fall asleep.  I can’t.  My brain insists, but my body resists.

Seven Hours Later: Good morning, boys and girls and welcome to another yawn-inducing episode of “As the Army Waits.” Today’s secret phrase is “Semper Gumby,” which as we all know is Scandinavian for “Always Flexible.”

At 3 a.m., we’re told to pack up and head out again.  We get on the bus, we drive to the tarmac, we actually board the plane.  The pallet is shoved onto the ramp, the doors close.  The engine revs, the wheels turn, we’re rolling down the runway!  Our hearts sing a chorus of Hallelujah.  We settle in for the flight.  Our butts chafe against the seats, our lower extremities go numb and we have visions of paralysis and wheelchairs.  Our bladders fill, threaten to spill over and we estimate how much muscle control is left before we can hit the latrine in Baghdad.

But uh-oh!  What’s this?  The plane feels like it’s braking.  It’s turning.  The airman at the back of the plane is saying something over the loudspeaker.  His voice is distorted and doesn’t filter through my earplugs. I turn to the girl sitting next to me.  “What’d he say?” I scream.

“I think he said we have to turn around to get the plane fixed.  Something about maintenance problems,” she screams back at me.

We come to a halt.  The doors open.  We walk back onto Kuwaiti soil.  Now we wait for the plane to be fixed…or we wait for the next regularly-scheduled flight heading to Baghdad…There’s one scheduled to depart at 7:30 p.m.  Or so they say.

Semper Gumby.

Four Hours Later: The plane cannot be fixed.  We groan.  We settle in for the day—there’s nothing for us to do between 8 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. except twiddle our thumbs.

I pull out a cot and—sweet Jehoshaphat!—I fall asleep within ten minutes.  I’m out for 5, maybe 6 hours.  When I wake, the coins in my pocket have pressed a permanent indentation on my hip, but at least I’m refreshed.

The hour for departure arrives.  We board the bus.  The driver says, “Haven’t we met somewhere before?”

We arrive at the tarmac.  The driver parks the bus.  He confers with the airmen on the flight line, then comes back in and tells us: “It’s going to be another half hour until they’re ready for us.”

Of course.

The guy sitting next to me on the bus is reading a book called Think Like a Winner!

Finally, we get the nod to board the plane.  We say goodbye to the bus driver like he’s an old friend.  We walk across the tarmac, walk up the ramp, strap in.  We cross our fingers, kiss our Catholic medallions, rub our rabbit’s feet.  It’s hot in this C-130 oven and the pilots aren’t doing anything but just sitting there on the runway.  Sweat is coming off my body like it was a lawn sprinkler.  Later, someone will tell me it was 111 degrees outside.  It was easily 10 degrees hotter than that inside the belly of the oven.

We roll down the runway.  This is it! we silently cheer.  We’re anxious about what waits for us in Baghdad, but we’re just as anxious to shake the Kuwaiti dust off our boots.  The propellers roar and gush with wind.  We pick up speed.  We exchange glances, giving each other hopeful smiles.  Dare we wish?  Dare we hope?  Dare we—

There is an awful clatter of metal.  The engines slow.  We are turning.  Turning back.

Two Hours Later: The Air Force assures us they’ll get another plane, so the bus will stay on the runway.  Besides, there’s nowhere else for us to go—the tents back at the holding area are all full with new people coming in who are trying to get out just as hard as us.

The bus driver says he’ll play a movie for us and starts cuing up the VCR.  Someone cracks, “This must be our suicide prevention video.”

It turns out to be an old Marx Brothers movie, dubbed in Arabic.

Meanwhile, we’ve pulled up to another plane which has just landed and off-loaded its passengers.  “Great,” we think.  “We’ll for sure get on this one.  It just got done flying, so what could possibly be wrong with it?”

Not so fast, Einstein.

The crewmen stand around shaking their heads.  This one has a fuel leak.  “We’re trying to fix it for you as fast as we can,” one airman tells us.

By 10:30 p.m., we’re ready to load up on this, our fourth plane.

We board, we strap in, we start the sweat process.  The plane taxis, the plane hesitates, the plane turns around and returns.  As the crew drops the back door, I see a group of men with handlebar mustaches and billy clubs running toward us.  Hey, whaddaya know, it’s the Keystone Kops!

This time, the “maintenance problem” is the radar altimeter.  A minimum of an hour to fix it, could take as long as eight.  We stumble off the plane, sprawl across the tarmac, smoking, leaning against our rucks, cursing the Air Force and its planes.

Three Hours Later: It’s fixed!  Get back on board!  Strap in!

Oh wait.  No, I guess it’s not fixed. Sorry--my bad.  Everyone back off the plane again.

I stand up and tell my fellow travelers that we’re now officially known as the Hotel California platoon.  “We can check out any time we like, but we can never leave.”  I get a few scattered laughs, mostly from the other NCOs.  The officers don’t crack a smile.

But by now, this whole situation has gone from funny to this ain’t fucking funny anymore.  Just get us up to Baghdad, war or no war.

An airman waves us over with a sweep of his arm.  This will make the seventh time we’ve boarded a plane with high hopes.

We walk up to the belly-door of the C-130.  A half-dozen maintenance workers are clustered on one of the wings, tinkering inside one of the turbo engine housings.  Not a good sign…but it’s a sign we’ve come to expect.

An air compressor hose has a leak.

One of the soldiers in my group turns to me.  “Look at the bright side.  Would you want them to be finding these problems while we’re in the air?”

He has a point.

We watch the airmen frantically scurry across the gray metal wing of the plane.

“You’re looking at parts plus 30,” one of the grease monkeys tells me as he wipes his hands on a rag.

“What does that mean exactly?”

“We have to go find the part, then it’ll take 30 minutes to fix it.”

We retreat to the air conditioning of the bus.  We doze, we read, we pray.

Dawn breaks.  Dawn?  Have we been out here that long?

We hear the C-130 engines roar to life as the mechanics put the plane through a test run.  All looks good.

We board.  We buckle.  The lights go out, replaced by that dim ghostly green that makes our pupils dilate.  The engines rev, the C-130 rolls forward, does a U-turn after three minutes, then thrusts, surges down the rough, cracked runway.  Two crewmen sit on sling seats at the porthole windows on either side of the plane.  They wear night vision goggles and crane their heads from side to side as the plane rumbles forward.  Once we get into Iraqi airspace, they’ll be looking for ghostly-green figures below—no bigger than beetles—who might be lifting RPG launchers to their shoulders or aiming AK-47s at our fuselage.

The C-130 bounces and wriggles away from the earth.  My torso compresses, expands, compresses again from the sudden g-force.  Somebody farts a noxious fart.  It dissipates and in its place, I smell sulphuric fuel, then a comforting scent of peppermint gum coming from the guy next to me.

We look at each other through the dim light.  This is it.  This is really it.  We’re swallowing hard knots in our throats.  We think: Kuwait wasn’t so bad after all.

HolymotherofGod, we’re doing it.  We’re going to war!  Oh shit oh shit oh shit!

We push our earplugs deeper into our ears, pull the strangling vests away from our throats and try to think happy thoughts.  As I’m pulled, carried, bounced into the air, I think of my wife undoing the top two buttons of her nightshirt and nestling my face between that soft, warm, slightly moist spot between her breasts.  I think of driving back to our home on a sunny autumn evening, golden light bronzing the tree leaves, Sheryl Crow crooning on the stereo.  I think of all my cats—past and present—sitting on my chest, soothing me with their purrs.

The C-130 is a rollercoaster, gathering speed and thrusting up to the sky at an angle that throws each of us against our neighbor.  I’m at the front of the plane and I look back along the length of the plane.  Everyone else has their eyes closed, their chins burrowed beneath their flak vests, their bodies pressed tight in one mass of beige uniforms and boots and M-16s as the C-130 thrusts up and up and up, the people at the tail of the plane now ten feet below me.  We are passengers on a rollercoaster and soon, I think, soon we’ll hit the crest of that first hilly plunge.  But we don’t plunge, we level out, the plane banking from side to side as it finds its proper place in the sky.  We are blue-black Soldiers—soft Fobbits one and all—roaring through the blue-black sky.  Within minutes of leveling out, I realize we’ve just crossed into enemy territory.  Iraq is rushing below our feet.  Anything can happen now: the ping of small-arms fire feebly striking the iron skin of the plane, a lucky aim of artillery, a rocket carving through the fuselage, our bodies engulfed in a fireball.

I think of breasts and kittens, breasts and kittens…

In what seems like a matter of minutes, the plane dips, swerves, swoops, rolls downward.  We’re spiraling in for a landing.  Air is squeezed from our bodies.  Our vests press against our throats.  There is a sound like a bone breaking.  Our ears pop and then there is a hard bounce.  Once, twice, then the wheels make certain contact with the ground.

Welcome to Iraq, boys and girls.

The doors open.  We file out.  Is this really Baghdad?

In the distance, we hear a metallic shriek rip across the sky, followed by a large, muffled explosion.  Our knees go wobbly.

I look up and see Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad standing near the terminal.  He is waving and grinning like a fool.


  1. Oh, that's nice. Hurry up and publish it, willya? And second Jean's just-right comment.