Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Care Package King (an excerpt)

The following excerpt from an early draft Fobbit is in no way, shape, or form meant to be an insult to any of the dozens of kind-hearted strangers who sent me care packages during my time in Baghdad.  Believe me when I say that the letters and packages from home always cheered me up and gave me something to look forward to at the end of each day.  This is not to say that bits and pieces of what you're about to read aren't true--of course I scavenged real life and transmogrified it into fiction--but no one who sent me baby wipes or beef jerky should take any of it personally.  Except maybe the dingleberry who sent me the Whoopee Cushion.

Another note: Abe Hornsacker was later rechristened Abe Shrinkle in the final draft of the novel.

Captain Abe Hornsacker had earned a reputation around the Forward Operating Base as the Care Package King.
It started with a trickle of boxes from his mother, her friends at work, and a few of his on-line friends (those who posted regularly to the Civil War Re-enactors group at  Then, Hornsacker had learned there was a multitude of organizations back in the U.S.—mothers of deployed soldiers, mothers of dead soldiers, prayer circles at churches, Girl Scout troops, Harley-Davidson Vietnam Vet clubs, the Vermont Republican Purple Ladies, you name it—who had made a non-profit cottage industry of collecting items which would “bring the comfort of home” to “our men and women who have placed themselves in harm’s way.”
Abe shook his head and hmmph-ed aloud.  Harm’s way.  Most Americans had no concept of what it meant to live in a world of car bombs and mortar threats and severed arms cocked in the grass beside the road.  But, Abe was certain, most of them wanted to know.  They wanted to empathize with him and his soldiers and they felt slack and helpless sitting back there in the land of cheeseburgers and Paris Hilton perfume.  They wanted to say or do something, so they reached out a hand in the airport or they mailed a package of chocolate chip cookies to a person they would never meet, and still they knew it wasn’t enough, but at least it was something.
And so, across America—but especially in the central belt of the Heartland—men and women, boys and girls, young and old, armed with plastic baggies and black markers, formed assembly lines and packed boxes full of donations which had flooded into the collection center.  They spent their nights and weekends carefully nesting baked goods and toiletries into boxes bound for soldiers they didn’t know from Adam (or Eve).  They pulled the names off the websites they’d built, which allowed soldiers to sign up to be on the receiving end.  It gave these mothers and fathers, these teachers and students, these pastors and their flocks, hot butterflies of happiness inside their chests and though they didn’t truly understand what was going on over in Iraq and really had no idea what it was like to wear eighty pounds of body armor in the 120-degree heat, it helped salve their collective guilt over the way America had treated the boys returning from Vietnam.  Along with the yellow-ribbon stickers on the backs of their cars, it was a way for them to show the rest of the world—Democrats especially—that they really knew how to Support the Troops.  It was incredible how the mere screech of pulling tape across the flaps of just one box could bring spiritual harmony to a person, make her feel like she was doing Something that Mattered.
Once Captain Hornsacker stumbled across this network of do-gooders, there was no stopping him.  In truth, he was supposed to share what he got with the rest of his company, but he’d always been a hoarder and this just fed his hunger--like grabbing an addict by the hair, tipping back his head, and pouring baggies of cocaine into his nostrils.   Each day, Abe received anywhere from two to ten boxes of items carefully packaged by mothers in Omaha and upstate New York.  Many days, he made multiple trips between the company mailroom and his trailer, slogging through the ankle-deep gravel beneath his load of boxes.
Here he is now, moving earnestly across the rocks for another armful.  His bootsteps, rough and determined, sound like someone punching a box of Corn Flakes.  Other soldiers give way, parting on either side of him; they know he is a man on a mission.  He has that look in his eye.
On this day, Abe whistles a peppy Glenn Miller tune (something he’s picked up from a Big Band CD which came in a recent care package).  At this particular moment, he loves this war and all its bennies, he loves the time of day with its slow-boiling sunset, and he loves the way the rocks sound beneath his boots.
He even loves the corrugated-steel shack that serves as a battalion post office.  Truth be told, he has a bit of a crush on the mail clerk, despite her thick glasses and oily patches of acne high on her forehead.  If time and circumstances were any different, Abe wouldn’t give her a second glance on the street.  Here, however, he wants to sweep her off her feet, and waltz around the gravel path with her in his arms as he hums “Dese Dem Dose” (or maybe “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”).
Here she comes now, glasses askew, staggering out of the back room beneath the weight of five boxes.  One of them is almost certainly full of books—a set of encyclopedias from the feel of it.  She hoists the boxes onto the counter, then steps back and wipes her forehead with the back of her hand, further enraging the pimples to an angry red.  She is breathing heavy and, of course, this stirs Abe's lust.
“Sir, I gotta ask: has there been a day when you didn’t get any mail?”
Abe puts a finger to his chin and ponders.  “Yes, I believe there was that Monday about two months ago when I went package-less.”
She laughs.  “We figure you’ve gotten more than 300 boxes so far.  You’re the King of Care Packages!”
There it is.  His title endorsed by a U.S. Government postal clerk.
To her, he is just an oddity—charming, but deserving of muttered curses because of all the backaches from lifting and toting those boxes every single blankety-blank day.  To Abe, however, Little Miss Mail Clerk is an angel, delivering fresh supplies of hand-packed home goodies every afternoon, starting at 1600 hours.
See how he skips back to his hootch, pondering the mystery of the boxes in his arms.  See that candy-store gleam in his eyes. 
Abe keeps to himself, spending most of his time in the trailer, arranging the various contents of his care packages and whiling away the remainder of his time reading the Louis L’Amour paperbacks which arrive with predictable regularity.

On this day, most of the boxes contain the usual assortment of granola bars, mixed nuts, hand sanitizer and magazines (Muscle & Fitness, Vermont Life, GQ, etc.). The encyclopedia-weight package turns out to be a year’s supply of shampoo and conditioner, along with three oily-looking fruitcakes in ziplock baggies.
One thick envelope in today's mail, however, is from a woman in Laramie, Wyoming—an oilman’s wife who fancies herself as something of a poet. She has written to Abe several times and he has answered promptly and enthusiastically, their correspondence revolving around Wyoming geology and literature and the joys and frustrations of being an unpublished poet trapped in a loveless marriage. In this day’s envelope, Mrs. Norma Shingledecker has included a two packages of jerky “made from genuine Cheyenne beef” along with another epistle (handwritten in lavender ink) about her “bluebird-soundtracked life on the High Plains.”  Abe sits there and snacks on the Wyoming cows as he reads the two-page letter she’s enclosed:
Wyoming got a big snow last week—in the north.  But down here (in Laramie), it’s all burning blue skies and the golden tumble of leaves from the aspen and cottonwoods when the wind shakes the boughs.  I saw a tiny warbler in the juniper bush outside my window two days ago; she’s on her way south…The fishing, too, is magnificent…mostly because of what you can see and smell and hear when you’re standing in the middle of the warmish, slow-moving Platte River.  Mint.  Dew-frosted sage.  The trilly scoldings of kingfishers and ravens.  The careful sip of a rainbow trout…The farewell serenade of Canada geese which breaks one’s heart with the reminder of seasons…I feel blessed every day to live in a place where nature still has the upper hand.  Ah, if only I felt the same glorious surge of love for my husband, Ray.  He’s a stinking, no-good bastard who always finds it necessary to stop at the Rockin’ R before he sloppy-stumbles his way home to an ice-cold dinner every night….But don’t get me started.  No doubt you already have too much to fret away at your nerves and occupy your mind over there for me to be going on about Ray.

Abe carefully re-folds Norma Shingledecker’s letter, tucks it back into its lavender-scented envelope and turns to the next box, ripping away the tape which resists with an angry squeal.  More socks.  Abe doesn't have enough feet for all the socks he's received since January.
The Care Package King lived alone with his accumulated goodwill in his trailer, a single room which was—he’d paced it out—11 x 13, wood paneled, tile-floored, with one window, an air conditioning unit, a metal wall locker, a two-drawer night stand, a small lamp and a bed which comes with a pillow, a comforter and one sheet.  He got lucky with the sheets—his were beige with an ivy pattern running along the borders; the KBR contractors had issued some of his fellow officers sheets with cartoon characters like Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears.
Thanks to Abe’s care-package hoarding, wall space was getting squeezed to a minimum.  After the first few weeks, he’d custom-built a large shelving unit along one side of the trailer and shoved his bed into the corner as tightly as he could just to accommodate his care package treasures.

Over the months, he’d received dried fruit, microwave popcorn, paperback books, packets of ketchup and mustard swiped from fast-food restaurants, comic books, DVDs, a bar of blackberry soap, four boxes of envelopes, three cans of apple juice, two kitchen scrubber sponges, gel insoles for combat boots, nail clippers, chocolate chip cookies, lemon bars, eye drops, bookmarks, pencils advertising local insurance companies, powdered drink mixes, tampons (at a site where he’d registered as “A. Hornsacker”), months-old copies of Car & Driver, Cosmopolitan, Newsweek, and Organic Gardening, combs, toothbrushes, butterscotch candies, rosary beads, photos from the 18th Annual Fireman’s Pig Roast in Eau Claire, breath mints, cheese crackers, raisins, band-aids, a tuft of pubic hair tenderly sealed in a Ziploc baggie by a Ms. Wanda Showalter (recently divorced) in Boise, cocoa mix with mini marshmallows, boxes upon boxes of Kleenex, a calendar with Norman Rockwell paintings, foot powder, jock itch cream, the complete Louis L’Amour collection (minus Buckskin Run and The Rustlers of West Fork), twenty-one bottles of Tylenol, crossword puzzles, bookmarks, fifteen copies of The Da Vinci Code, miniature American flags (made in China), a studio “boudoir” portrait of Ms. Wanda Showalter (still divorced), antibiotic ointment, a CD of Irish jig music, original cast soundtracks of South Pacific and Cats, cans of tuna fish, thirty-six decks of playing cards, Christmas decorations which arrived in February, Hershey’s Kisses that came in one glob of melted chocolate and tinfoil, kazoos, a pair of slippers, stationery, Post-It Notes "From the Desk of Jack Cramer," powdered laundry soap, saltwater taffy, sunscreen, and baby wipes. Oh Lord, the baby wipes!
Somewhere along the line, some soldier at the beginning of the war must have mentioned to his mother that he and his buddies had no way to wash their hands after eating T-rats out in the middle of the desert where running water was hard to come by (at least in the early days of the invasion, this was very true), so if she could manage to send a box or two of baby wipes to him and the rest of the guys, that would be totally awesome.  Word must have spread.  Since then, baby wipes had been appearing on the “Much Needed” lists at the care package websites, and now Abe Hornsacker’s west wall was completely bricked with plastic tubs of baby wipes.  They numbered in the hundreds, floor to ceiling, and provided a noise buffer against the Blackhawks chopping low overhead.
They also served a more immediate, economic purpose for Abe Hornsacker.  He hadn’t known what to do with them until 2nd Lieutenant Pepperhill came to Bravo Company in March.  Pepperhill’s wife had given birth one month before he shipped out.  It was their first child and Pepperhill wasn’t taking it well.  So, every three days like clockwork, he paid Hornsacker $4 a tub just to take it back to the privacy of his hooch and be able to pull out a baby wipe and smell the antiseptic powdery perfume and remember what his baby’s butt smelled like back in Lafayette, Louisiana.  There were nights when his soldiers came back from patrol and found their lieutenant sitting there on his cot rubbing a baby wipe all over his face and crying deep, heavy homesick sobs.
Sometimes, Hornsacker received large envelopes full of letters written by entire classrooms of students at the behest of their teachers.
Dear Hero,
Thank you for your hard work on keeping me and my family safe.  I know that you have been their for a long time.  It’s been hard for everyone.
Sinserily your friend,
Fernando M.
P.S.  Stay safe.  Oh by the way, even if you die you will still be my hero.
To Abe: Yore in my famly’s prayers evry nite at dinner.  Be verey verey verey verey verey verey verey verey verey verey verey verey carful. My name is Kirsten age 7.  Yore friend, Kirsten.
Dear Soljer,
Mrs. Parker is makeing me write this.  I don’t like Mrs. Parker.  Did you like your teechers?  Teechers are the worst.  They’re worser than splinters.  Well, I hope you are well over there.  Stay cool!
Darius K. Abernathy

Like the rest of the care packages, these letters written by boys and girls gripping pencils in their fists and leaning over their desks with poked-out tongues filled Abe Hornsacker with gallons of pride.  If even the least of these--the schoolchildren and the lonely housewives--were standing behind him, then surely he and his men were doing the right thing over here.  If these care packages were any indication, this war was indeed winnable.

1 comment:

  1. Great, reads just like Catch-22! One quibble-the Platte doesn't run through Laramie.