Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Fobbits and Grunts: Separated by degrees

At the moment I'm writing this, it's 63 degrees here in Butte, Montana.

Five years ago in Baghdad, it was more than 50 degrees hotter and, according to my journal entry for that day, I was one suffering Fobbit.  When you're this hot, I guess you get a little delirious....

June 8, 2005:  It’s hot.  Temperatures climb to the triple digits by noon and stay there until I get off shift around 6 p.m.  The heat is a Thing I must endure when walking between oases of air conditioning.  It presses in on my skin and scorches the lining of my nose and withers my lungs.  I made a fruitless walk out to the Troop Medical Clinic this afternoon to get my prescription filled, only to be turned away at the front desk—“You’ve got to come during sick-call hours”—and so I had to trudge back to Pad 17 where I live and work…about a mile-long walk.  Around the half-mile mark, my tongue started swelling up and I thought of those words Jesus croaked on the cross: “Father, I am thirsty!”  In my heat delirium, I started chanting a mantra: “Cold water, air conditioning, cold water, air conditioning, cold water, air conditioning.”  Along the way, I passed a group of girls and heard one say to the others, “It’s so hot my lips is burning!”  I start thinking about Alaska and the times I’d take the trash out to the dumpster wearing nothing but my flannel pajama bottoms, a pair of slippers and a T-shirt when it was 20 below zero.  I think of a bitter, bitter December day in Fairbanks when I drove out near Ester, traveling along a desolate side road, into a deserted national forest in search of that year’s Christmas tree.  When I stepped out of my van and into the double-digits-below-zero cold, the air was so still, so frozen I could hear pine needles tinkling to the ground two miles away.  A raven crying overhead was like a sonic boom.  I start thinking of how my hands, even inside the cocoon of glove, went numb after fifteen minutes of hacking away at the trunk of a tree which was frozen hard as concrete.  I think of how, when your hands are truly cold, the skin of your fingers starts pulling away from your fingernails and you think you are being tortured by Viet Cong soldiers.  Just when I'm remembering how miniature icicles used to form on the tips of my nose hairs, I snap back to the searing heat of Baghdad.  I walk off the frying-pan sidewalk and into the cool cave of the Division headquarters building.  There at the front desk where the guards check your badge, it’s like a wall of Freon that greets you with a “Hi, howdy!  Let me cool your brow, pardner!”  These days, when I come in from walking any distance outside, I first go to my cubicle area where I store my M-16 on the wooden weapons rack, then I make a beeline for the bathroom where I splash water across my face and hair to wash away the sweat.
Reading back over this material--hyperbolic as it might be--I realize I should probably use some of it in Fobbit to contrast the worlds of the infantry and the Fobbits.  In the high heat of the day, there is little relief for the soldier out on foot patrol.  He may have the comfort of water from his Camelbak, but there is no "Hi, howdy!" Freon circulating through his Kevlar helmet.  The Fobbit knows this, counts his frigid-air blessings, but doesn't let that stop him from staying right where he is--deskside and cool.  When I say these soldiers' lives are separated by degrees, it's true in more ways than one.

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