Monday, May 31, 2010

"2,000 and counting" (an excerpt)


U.S. Army photo
Normally, I'd resist the urge to write a maudlin post in observance of Memorial Day.  There are plenty of well-meaning websites (complete with the Muzak version of "Some Gave All") and forwarded e-mails from your equally-well-meaning uncle to fill that void.  I purposely tried to avoid writing about Death in a Time of War for this day.

But recent circumstances have practically begged me to do otherwise.  Four days ago, the war in Afghanistan saw its 1,000th casualty.  Born on the 4th of July, Marine Cpl. Jacob C. Leicht was killed when he stepped on a land mine that ripped off his right arm.  His brother told a reporter: "He said he always wanted to die for his country and be remembered.  He didn't want to die having a heart attack or just being an old man. He wanted to die for something."  Unfortunately, history will remember Cpl. Leicht more for the number 1,000 on his corpse than for his qualities as a warrior, brother, and friend.

I was in Baghdad for the 2,000th casualty of the Iraq War.  It was a public affairs nightmare.

And, of course, that provided fodder for the novel I'm currently writing.  Starting with a post from one of the blogs I fabricated for Fobbit, here are a couple of excerpts featuring public affairs officer Lt. Col. Harkleroad.  And, yes, many parts of this do bear more than a passing resemblance to reality.

From the blog A Line in the Sand:

1,996.
For those of you marking your scorecards at home, that’s the tally as of right now, this instant, this nano-second before the next bomb is detonated, before the next grubby thumb presses down on the remote-controlled cell phone trigger or the next zealous Muslim chanting “Allah Akbar!” steers his car bomb toward a U.S. convoy and some unlucky soldier literally bites the bullet, dubiously privileged with his fifteen minutes of fame as Number 2,000.
But that’s four bodies down the road.
For now, the score hovers at 1,996.
Better mark it in pencil, though.  And have an eraser handy.
The media is drawn like jackals to a watering hole by the number 2,000.  It is a milestone, they say, one to be marked with a top-of-the-fold story.  They love the sensuous curve of the 2 and the plump satisfaction of those triple zeroes, lined up like perfect bullet holes—BAM! BAM! BAM!
2,000 is a number most Americans can hold in their minds and remember the awful waste of this war, this overlong field trip to the desert where we got ourselves tangled in a briar patch and stuck to the tar baby of terrorism.


* * * * *

The number 2,000 had been plaguing Stacie Harkleroad for weeks.  Each day brought a fresh round of tick marks, inching closer and closer to that grand total score of 2,000 American bodies—bullet-riddled, beheaded, and bomb-blown-to-smithereens.

Months ago—what now seemed like years—he had opened the latest issue of USA Today to read:  Fifty-eight American troops died in Iraq in February, the fewest fatalities since 54 died in July 2004, preliminary Pentagon statistics show.  Translating the death count into a daily rate, February’s losses were down sharply from January and less than half those in November, the war’s bloodiest month for U.S. forces.  The February figures raise the total U.S. death toll in the war to 1,490.

Even as Stacie folded the newspaper, bent his head and tucked into his sausage and eggs on that long-ago February morning, the body-o-meter was clicking over to 1,500, thanks to a suicide bomber who rammed his truck into a U.S. checkpoint twenty miles south of Salman Pak.

When Stacie got to his office, booted up his computer and read the e-mail from G-3 Ops, he stared at that figure—the 1 standing at attention, the 5 slouching, the zeros with their empty, shot-out innards.  It was such a nice, perfectly-shaped number—deceptively pretty, falsely clean.  Then he thought about trying to count 1,500 people (heck, let’s not even make it people—say, popsicle sticks, instead) and he realized how hard it would be to count, how exhausting to tally that volume of popsicle sticks.  He was sure he’d lose track halfway through—distracted by the image of sitting on the back porch with his mother, slurping at a Fudgsicle evaporating in the Tennessee heat—and he’d have to start over from the beginning.  One thousand, five hundred.  That was nearly half the number of soldiers in the division.

Now the figure seemed quaint, already antiquated.

An additional 496 bodies--plus another four unlucky souls this morning--had been added to the pile since February and this was rapidly becoming a problem, a whopper of a problem which lay across his shoulders like an iron mantle.

For the last two weeks, the Public Affairs Office had been besieged by phone calls from reporters, begging to be embedded with task force units which had suffered an unusually high body count.  This, the reporters said, would give them a greater chance of being on the scene when number 2,000 meets his (or her) fate.

The reporters are deplorable, yes, but who can blame them? Harkleroad thought.  They are merely fueled by ratings, which in turn are stoked by the American public, who in turn self-righteously deplore the media’s obsession with this grim milestone.  Round and round she goes…



[Later in the novel....]

When Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad learned the identity of Soldier Number 2,000, it caused him increased consternation and prolonged bouts of nose-bleeding.  From Number 1,990 onward, he’d been keeping track with tick-marks on the dry-erase board mounted on the wall next to his desk.

Private Ralph J. Egbert, KIA, Salman Pak.  Tick.
Sergeant First Class Israel Munoz, KIA, Sadr City.  Tick.
Specialist James D. Apgar, KIA, Sadr City.  Tick.
Private Ellis Wheeler Jr., KIA, Mosul.  Tick.
Private First Class Andrew C. Mount, KIA, Mosul.  Tick.
Second Lieutenant Erika Sheridan, KIA, Mosul.  Tick.
Specialist Isaiah D. Washington, KIA, Ramadi.  Tick.
Specialist Aaron L. Karst, KIA, Ramadi.  Tick.
Private Jamie Rosen, KIA, Ramadi.  Tick.

For days, he’d stared at that next blank spot, playing guessing games with gender, rank, location.  If he had his druthers, what would he, Eustace L. Harkleroad, prefer the 2,000th American casualty to be?  A Hispanic sergeant who leaves behind a wife and eight children in El Paso when his humvee hits a bad bump in the road and flips into a canal?  A milk-fed Midwestern boy, so quickly promoted to captain when he was barely five years out of West Point, who burns to a crisp in the back of an armored personnel carrier?  A black female medic stabbed to death by one of her patients, a crazed Local National whose bandages she’d been so lovingly, tenderly, heroically changing as he lay on a cot in the Combat Support Hospital when with a crescendoing growl he reared up, whipped out a boxcutter and sliced her jugular (investigation still pending)?  He prayed to God that Number 2,000 wouldn’t be just another bland, run-of-the-mill death—blah-blah patrol struck an IED in the neighborhood of blah-blah killing Private Joe Blah-Blah.  When it finally came, Harkleroad hoped the last tick mark would have the punch of drama, a heart-tugging story which would bring a misty tear to the eye of even the most callous, hard-drinking reporter in the Associated Press.  America deserved a grand, glorious death to mark this most ignoble of occasions (he could never use that phrase, of course, but he sure liked the sound of it).  “Where are you?” he asked the blank spot on his dry-erase board.  “Who are you?”

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Billboard of Fiction

While serving in Iraq five years ago, I knew I was onto something good, writer-wise.  This is the stuff of novels, I thought every day when I woke up.  You just can't make this shit up.  The deployment was handing me a book and, after 17 aimless years in the Army spent trying to figure out my purpose in the Military Machine, I knew I was in the right place at the right time.

If this sounds callous and self-serving, I apologize.  It's not my intent to trivialize war and death.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I'm trying to understand why I was in that country for a year and, in the bigger picture, why we as a country invaded, occupied, and stayed long after the welcome mat was yanked away.  Sure, I could write a memoir--and it would join the hundreds of others saturating the market right now--but for some reason, I need to filter my deployment experience through a novel.  It's only by painting on the billboard of fiction that I can make sense of what I saw over there.

Like one of Fobbit's characters, Chance Gooding Jr., I kept a daily journal during my year in Iraq.  The writing was intense and exhausting, leaving me little time for anything else in my down-time, but I knew I needed to capture as much of what surrounded me there in Camp Liberty (aka Fobbitville) as I could.

Later, bits and pieces of what I recorded found their way into the novel--sometimes verbatim, sometimes transmogrified by the imagination. Here is a typical journal entry, exactly five years ago to this day (I've changed some names to protect the innocent):

May 30, 2005:  I’m pulling sergeant of the guard duty again tonight—and plan to make some headway in Don Quixote while making sure everyone in our Trailer City can get a safe, restful night’s sleep.  My runner is a young, smiley-faced kid from the Judge Advocate General's office named Specialist Rizzuto—I knew him down in Kuwait but haven’t seen much of him since moving up here.  He’s telling me all about his work—“I work in post-trial” (whatever that means)—and how he and the JAG colonel have had to roam the streets of Baghdad looking for witnesses to testify at courts martial.  “I’ll tell ya, sergeant, we go places that most military convoys never dreamed of going.  We’re going down to neighborhoods which have never seen Americans before and they’re staring at us like we’re from another world.  And then one time last week we ran into an anti-American demonstration.”

“Hoo, boy,” I said.

“We turned tail and got out of there fast!”

Rizzuto tells me of other trials:  “We just got done sentencing a soldier to life in prison.  Pre-meditated murder of a local national.”

“Really?”  My eyebrows raise.  “I didn’t hear about that.”

“Nobody did.  It’s not like it was kept hush-hush or nothing.  But for some reason, nobody heard about it.  Just like they don’t hear about all those senior people who are getting busted, like E-7s and above who are getting court-martialed for all kinds of stuff.  Drunk and disorderlies—”

“Hold on,” I interrupt.  “Where are they getting this stuff?”

Rizzuto gives me a winkly little smile.  “Aw, come on, sergeant.  It’s out there for people to get.  Mostly KBR contractors—they’re the ones who’ll hook you up.”

“Man, that’s just stupid.”

“Speaking of stupid.  We had one sergeant first class in one of the brigades who got a little too…celebratory during the NCAA playoffs and he was going around to all the rooms.  Drunk and butt naked.”

* * *

Last night, at 10:00, I was lying on my bed reading Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three and listening to Mozart on my headphones when I was jolted out of bed by a trailer-rattling BOOM.  I looked at my watch.  Awfully late for the terrorists; they’re usually off shift by now.  With the latest crackdown—the U.S. offensive called Operation Squeeze Play and the Iraqi offensive called Operation Lightning (Al-Barq)—I guess the terrorists are getting desperate….or more wily.

Six hours earlier, the insurgents launched an assault on the Baghdad Major Crimes Unit facility, where a lot of detainees are being kept.  They’d hoped to be able to spring their brothers in evil.  They attacked the MCU barracks with small-arms fire and RPGs, taking the Iraqi Police by surprise (though they quickly regrouped and started firing back).  Around the same time, they set off Improvised Explosive Devices and Vehicle-Borne IEDs at four different locations around the neighborhood, hoping to frustrate US efforts to come in and back up the besieged IPs.  We could hear all the chatter over the loudspeaker as it was unfolding.  At one point, one of the commanders radioed in, saying, “The IPs report they’re running out of bullets.”

That’s when I sat up and really started to pay attention.  This was like some crazy movie unfolding all around us.

The loudspeaker squawked again a few minutes later:  “The observation tower at Checkpoint 5 reports a large group of armed individuals—all dressed in black—moving toward BIAP.”

I pictured the black-clad jihadists jogging toward the airport.  If they conquered Baghdad International Airport, they’d easily move on into Camp Liberty.

A few minutes later, the threat had passed.  Nothing that a few well-aimed American bullets couldn’t take care of.

Eventually, reinforcements made it to the MCU facility and law and order was restored.

The smoke still hadn’t cleared when a sergeant major back in the Provost Marshal’s Office told me, “I don’t know what the final BDA (Battle Damage Assessment) is going to be, but it doesn’t look good for the terrorists.”

But now, at 10 p.m., this IED is loud enough to make me put my shoes on and step outside on my porch.  Above the gurgling hum of my air conditioning unit, I hear small-arms fire coming from just on the other side of Signal Hill.  Two red tracer bullets arc into the air like a tiny, out-of-season fireworks display.  I stand there listening to the near-distant brrrrrap! brrrrrap! of the .50-caliber machine guns.  I look around and see others standing out there, too—the orange fireflies of cigarettes glowing in the dark.  After five minutes, I go take a piss then return to my novel and, eventually fall into fitful sleep.

At the G-3 Sergeant Major’s meeting today, he tells us, “Just so you know, Tigerland got hit with a rocket last night.”

Tigerland is the area of Camp Liberty adjacent to our division headquarters.

“Somebody did get injured, but he’s okay—only minor wounds.  Still, scary for him and everybody around him on Tigerland.”

There is a moment of silence, then everyone else starts telling stories of what they’ve heard.

“Capt. Zipperer had a 7.62 round come through his roof last week.  When he woke up, there was the round sitting on the floor of his hootch.”

“I heard there was a rocket fired at a C-130 as it was taking off from BIAP last night.”

“Did you all hear the firefight at Temple Gate last night?  It must have gone on for a hour, hour-and-a-half.”

And then there was the specialist who was found on the ground near his unit’s motor pool, a bullet in his head.  His roommate found the body.  We’re still not sure what happened, but it’s likely one of two things: suicide or murder.  It’s strange to think of such a thing as good ole American homicide while we’re over here in a war zone.

Overall, though, today was the same-old, same-old. IED here, VBIED there. Here’s a typical Significant Activity report:

SIGACT 12 AT 1400 D/1-64 AR REPORTS A VBIED.   A BLUE DAEWOO SEDAN PULLED UP NEXT TO A STATIONARY M1 ABRAMS ON RTE PREDATORS AND EXPLODED.   NO CAUSALTIES, MINIMAL DAMAGE TO M1 ABRAMS TURRET.   1-64 AR CORDONED THE AREA AND CONDUCTED A POST BLAST ANALYSIS.   ONLY REMAINS RECOVERED FROM SUICIDE DRIVER WAS 1 HAND.   SUMMARY 1XAIF KIA 1X BLUE DAEWOO SEDAN DESTROYED

Something about that severed hand, though, makes me choke with pity.  Don’t these terrorists know they’re literally wasting their lives?  At least twice today, VBIEDs blew up “before they reached their objective.”  I hope they enjoy their 70 virgins because their deaths didn’t accomplish anything here, apart from making a few new road craters which Iraqi workers have to come repair.  I picture one of those local Iraqi workers picking up that sole-surviving hand.  Does he treat it with gentle pity?  Or, angry and bitter, does he mash it beneath the heel of his boot?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Down in the weeds with the sentences

An Army public affairs officer I worked with in Alaska was particularly fond of the phrase "down in the weeds" to describe nit-picking the details of the task at hand--as in, "This 853-page annual report really gets down in the weeds when it comes to counting the wrenches in the motor pool;" or, "Good God Almighty, that four-hour staff meeting would've been three-and-a-half hours shorter if G-3 Operations hadn't got down in the weeds with that PowerPoint lecture on training schedules."

He used "down in the weeds" like it was a bad thing.  But when it comes to writing, and especially the process of re-writing, spending some time hunkering low in the grass is a very good idea.  As I move through Fobbit sentence by sentence, I'm forced to question each adverb and judge the fate of every dangling participle.  I cut, I slash, I bind.  Leaning in this close, I'm examining the narrow lens of the sentence, and temporarily forsaking the wider aperture of the novel as a whole.

It's tough to amputate and even tougher to re-build.  But sometimes, I hit upon something that seems to work, a new image that arrives unnanounced on the scene.  I had that kind of moment this morning as I was working my way through a chapter where an infantry company has set up a security perimeter around a failed suicide bomber in a crowded Baghdad intersection.  The would-be terrorist crashed his car into the back of an armored vehicle and no one is certain if the explosives are inert or active.  An Explosive Ordnance Disposal team sends a robot out to investigate.

Here are the sentences as they appeared in the first draft:
Without warning, the half-dead man came to life. The whir and grrr of the robot had roused him from his stupor and now he was agitated, yelling at the robot, which stared back at him without blinking, despite the curses invoking Allah the terrorist hurled at it.
 After spending nearly half an hour in the weeds with these two sentences, they emerged as:
The half-dead man came to life. He coughed and a rope of blood spurted from his lips. The whir and grrr of the robot had roused him from his stupor and now he was agitated, taking it out on the robot, which stared back at him without blinking despite the curses invoking Allah the terrorist hurled at it.
"Without warning" seemed like too much fat, as if I needed an introductory build-up to what was about to happen with the next seven words.  Highlight, ctrl-X, and poof! they're gone.  I like the fact that "half-dead" is more prominent now, punching up the irony of the guy coming back to life.

Then it occured to me that we moved too abruptly from the terrorist regaining consciousness to him yelling at the EOD robot.  I thought hard, picturing the scene.  What would he do?  I saw him sitting up and coughing blood from the effort.  The image in my head suggested that word "rope" and once it was there on the page, I really liked it.

Next, I wondered if "yelling" wasn't too strenuous at this point.  The dude is weak from loss of blood (not to mention the fact that his skull is fractured and a half-dozen ribs are broken).  Would he really be yelling at this machine?  Better to let the hurled curses suggest the volume of his anger.  I decided to add "taking it out on the robot" because elsewhere I give the T-271 robot anthropomorphic qualities and this fit right in with the machine having its feelings hurt.

As with everything else at this stage, there's a good chance even those re-written sentences won't survive future pass-throughs with the editing weed-whacker.  But, at least for today, it was productive to spend a couple of hours crouched down among the sentences.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Tactile Pleasures

Embedded in Lisa Peet's wrapup of Day Two at BookExpo America at the Like Fire blog is a nifty story highlighting the tactile pleasures of books.  Peet has read several books on her Kindle device, but was left feeling vaguely dissatisfied by at least one novel, Paul Harding's Tinkers.  She writes:
I enjoyed it well enough, but on finishing I knew that I’d have to buy the book in print form as well.  I didn’t give much thought to the reason. It was a purely emotional response:  The book is as intricate as the tinker’s horse-drawn wagon, filled with rows of small wooden drawers, that it describes.  I wanted to hold it in my hands, flip back and forth and see words and paragraphs in relation to actual pages.  That’s not always necessary for everything I read, but it was for Tinkers.  In my case, it’s what the book wanted, and I can’t put it better than that.
I can't either.

I don't own a Kindle.  While I'm not morally opposed to them, I just don't see myself owning one any day soon.  Sure, there's something to be said for having multiple books in the palm of my hand, and I'm all for greening the environment, and Lord knows I couldn't live without the 13,000 songs on my iPod.  But the truth is, I can only read one Kindled book at a time.

Furthermore, when I read a book, I like to feel it.  Not the cool synthetic, amalgamated shell of an e-reader, but the fibrous textiles of individual books.  The book as an object--from the cover art to the velvet whisper of turning pages--is as much a part of the reading experience as the contents.  Even now, I can recall the wrist-ache from holding Don Quixote while lying on my cot in my hooch in Baghdad; or the mylar-covered jackets of library books I read as a boy which were grimed (and germed) with a hundred handprints; or the chemically-comforting scent rising from new books.

Books are more than e-ink words scrolling across a screen, they are individual works of art.  They are like us: tall and skinny; short and over-fed; sleek and flashy; tattered and torn.  I often walk along my bookshelves, running my eyes over the broken-spined, the water-warped, the insect-nibbled.  Each one has something to say to me.

I like the idea of books calling to us; and, by extension, authors calling to readers.  If each of my books has something to say to me, then there are more than 6,000 voices coming from my shelves at this moment.  I know I'll never be able to answer all of them, so I somewhat serendipitously let them find me.

By coincidence, at nearly the same moment bookseller Michelle Filgate was putting a copy of Tinkers in Lisa Peet's hands at BEA on Wednesday, my wife was putting one into mine.  Yesterday was my birthday, but my wife couldn't wait to give me this book (if for no other reason than to bring an end to my insistence that we stop at every @$#&$!! bookstore in Montana to see if it was in stock).  I was at a day-long business meeting in Missoula Wednesday and when we met for lunch, she put a plastic shopping bag in my hand, delivering the gift with a knowing smile.  There, sandwiched between two pairs of jeans from Old Navy, was Tinkers.  While I appreciated the jeans, I have a feeling Tinkers will give me hours of deeper and richer pleasures.

I reached in the bag and drew it out.  Lisa Peet is right when she says that it's "a lovely little smooth-covered paperback, light as a bird."  As I held the book in my hand, it felt like it wanted to take flight.

Want more serendipity?  I just now opened Tinkers to a random page to see if I could find a choice passage to quote for this blog post.  These are the first words my eyes fell on (page 44):
This is a book.  It is a book I found in a box.  I found the box in the attic.  The box was in the attic, under the eaves.  The attic was hot and still.  The air was stale with dust.  The dust was from old pictures and books.  The dust in the air was made up of the book I found.  I breathed the book before I saw it; tasted the book before I read it.
I'd like to tell you that I thumbed through the pages until I found this most-perfect passage.  But the truth is, the book knew what it wanted.  It called to me and I answered.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Soup and Salad: "My Life With the Lincolns," Shirley Jackson, Mark Twain tells all, Bill Murray

On today's menu:

1.  Gayle Brandeis talks to largehearted boy about the music that infuses her new novel My Life With the Lincolns in the website's regular feature Book Notes.  Like the rest of largehearted boy's site, Book Notes blends books and music in a very cool way--sort of like an "extra" on a DVD--where writers discuss how music directly or indirectly influenced their book.  (For Fobbit, it would definitely have to be U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb--but I'll save that discussion for a future blog post).  Brandeis' new book sounds like a good one and I'm adding it to my wish list right now.  I really enjoyed her The Book of Dead Birds; and when I was in Iraq, she was kind enough to send me an early draft of the novel which eventually grew into Self Storage.  If you haven't read any of her work, today's as good a time to start as any.

2.  Helen Oyeyemi nicely dissects Shirley Jackson in a review at The Barnes and Noble Review:  "Like Poe, Jackson repeatedly linked chills and laughter."  If I failed to mention it earlier, Jackson is also high on my reading bucket list.

3.  Someone who's not on my bucket list, but who famously kicked his own bucket on at least two separate occasions?  Mark Twain.  I know, I know, I should bow down and revere Mr. Clemens, but he has never clicked with me.  Somehow, I got off on the wrong foot with him, and though Life on the Mississippi is competently written, it's just not the be-all, end-all.   Same goes for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  In fairness, I probably should give Twain another try, but right now that's so far down on the list, it's below the bucket.  Even so, I'm very intrigued by the news that his autobiography, sealed for 100 years, will soon be released.  Is this just another publicity stunt from the grave, or will the book really reveal some scandle which Twain wanted to keep secret for a century?  What could be in there which needed to be kept from readers until now?  A bastard child prone to painting fences?  A mistress with the pet-name "Puddin'head"?  Or perhaps the revelation that "Mark Twain" is not a riverboat navigation term but the name of a popular 19th-century toothpaste?

4.  Bill Murray!  Better yet, Bill Murray!!  (The dude deserves two exclamation points)  It's time to celebrate the ingenuity of Baby Ruths floating in the country club pool.  Paste Magazine opines on the Top 10 BMs.  I have no quibble with what's on there (despite never having seen Ghostbusters, Broken Flowers, or Lost in Translation), but I probably would have swapped out one of their picks for what I believe is an equally-great BM: his endearing camp counselor in Meatballs ("It just doesn't matter!  It just doesn't matter!").

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Who is Hugh Walpole and Why Has He Invaded My Library?

When I tell you the story of how I met Hugh Walpole, I’d have to start off by saying something grandiose like “It was one of those moments when luck, timing and commerce converged.”

Mr. Walpole, for as much as I know him by now, would appreciate grandiosity, mottled with pomposity.  And, by the way, when I say “met Hugh Walpole,” I am strictly speaking in the biblio sense of the word.  The dude’s been dead for 69 years.

I discovered him on a bookshelf, dirty with neglect, in the garage of a modest house in the foothills of Butte, Montana.  My wife and I, always the intrepid antique-hunters, had gone there for an estate sale advertised in the local paper.  We found the usual assortment of eight-track tapes, corroded hand tools, macramé potholders, and photo albums featuring children beaming at us from the yellow-tinted 70s.  The usual ho-hum junk for a dime.

Then I stepped into the garage, saw the bookcase in the corner and those two rows of tattered-but-proud spines.  I stepped a little closer and saw that nearly every title was written by the same man: Sir Hugh Walpole.

Hugh who?

His name rang a bell in my head.  But only faintly.  I was familiar with Hugh Walpole in the same way I was familiar with mascarpone cheese: heard of it, never tried it.

I started pulling the volumes off the shelf and flipping the liver-spotted pages. Above the Dark Tumult, The Bright Pavilions, The Secret City, The Inquisitor.  The titles seemed to promise darkness, light, and mystery.  The volumes had all been printed in the 1920s, 30s and 40s; only one still wore its dust jacket and nearly all of them were stained with water, coffee rings and (as I’d learn after reading a few passages) tears.  The books puffed dust and sighed with age when I opened the covers.  There were nearly two dozen Walpoles there on that shelf and I wanted them all.

The man running the estate sale—mid-sixties, rumpled clothes, stained teeth—walked over and asked, “You interested in them books?”

I tried to un-widen my eyes.  As a book collector in the advanced stages of delirium, it’s best not to play your hand too early.  “Oh,” I coughed, “I might take a look at one or two of them.”

“Well, if you want ’em, I’ll give ’em to you for 50 cents each.”

Holy Mother of Book-Glue!  My veins constricted and my ear lobes started to tingle.

Five minutes later, I was toting a box brimming with Walpole out to my car.  I was moving at a half-trot, hoping I could get in, start the car, and drive away before the poor man realized he’d just been robbed of what looked like genuine literary gems.

At the time, I thought I’d snagged Walpole’s entire canon.  Even then I knew he was an author who had languished into obscurity and if I, compulsive reader that I am, had never heard of his works, then surely he couldn’t have written much more than I had in the box sloshing around in the back seat.

Wrong-o, buck-o!

A Wiki-search soon revealed that Sir Hugh Walpole had once been a word factory--his pumping pistons and chugging levers going 24/7 for several decades in the early 20th century.  Starting with The Wooden Horse in 1909 and continuing until his death of a heart attack in 1941 he wrote with the kind of ambition only someone destined for literary glory could sustain.  By all accounts, he strained too hard for that glory, eventually earning dismissal by the critics and a withering caricature by Somerset Maugham in his novel Cakes and Ale.  Walpole’s obituary in The Times gave him the kind of back-handed slap no writer deserves: “He had a versatile imagination; he could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English; and he was a man of immense industry, conscientious and painstaking.”

“Immense industry,” indeed: over the span of a three-decade career, he wrote 36 novels, five volumes of short stories, two plays and three volumes of memoirs.  Not to mention the screenplay adaptation of one of my favorite Charles Dickens movies, the 1935 version of David Copperfield.

So what happened, Hugh?  Where did it all go wrong?  Was your fiction really so third-rate that you so quickly tumbled off the literary radar, forever muted to the obscurity of garage sales, flea markets and estate sales?  As at least one blogger has noted: “His career stands as a salutary reminder of the fragility of literary reputation.”

Nonetheless, at one point someone must have liked him enough to buy each new release when it hit the bookstore in Butte, Montana.  And not just “bought,” but “read.”  Even as I left the estate sale, I felt certain that whoever once lived there had devoured each and every one of those Walpoles.  I think of her—for I really suspect it was a woman of leisure—absorbed in these novels while outside her window the hills of Butte, Swiss-cheesed with mines, belched toxic smoke.  Inside, she lounged in her parlor, Debussy on the Victrola, and let herself be carried away to England’s Lake District on flowery clouds of Walpole's words.

The thin papery sky of the early autumn afternoon was torn, and the eye of the sun, pale but piercing, looked through and down.  The eye’s gaze travelled on a shaft of light to the very centre of the town.  A little scornful, very arrogant, it surveyed the scene.
--The Inquisitor (1935)

As I do with every book that comes into my library, I opened each of the Walpoles and read the first few paragraphs, knowing that this might very well be all I ever read of the book (sadly, my rate of book intake far exceeds my rate of reading).  From the first word, I found Walpole to be a lively, engaging writer who pulled me into his books with both hands grasping my shoulders:

No one perhaps in the United Kingdom was quite so frightened as was Nathalie Swan on the third day of November, 1924, sitting in a third-class carriage about quarter to five of a cold, windy, darkening afternoon. Her train was drawing her into Paddington Station, and how she wished that she were dead!
--Hans Frost (1929)

Miss Henrietta Maxwell, when she was about thirty-five years of age, suffered suddenly from misfortune.  She had been for many years quite alone in the world, an only child whose parents had been killed in a carriage accident when she was ten years of age.  Then she had acquired an almost masculine independence and self-reliance.  Until lately things had gone well with her. Without being rich, she had had, until that fatal August of 1914, quite enough to live upon.  She had taken a house in St. Johns’ Wood, not far from Lord’s, with an adorable garden, paneled dining room, and a long music room at that back.  She had soon loved this house so much, so deeply, that she had bought it.  Then, when the war came, she threw herself completely into war work, nursed in France, worked with desperate seriousness and the severity of a brigadier general over those whom she commanded.  Towards the end of 1917 she broke down, had insomnia, came back to England to rest, found it a much longer business than she had expected, and was not really her old self again until after the Armistice.  Perhaps she would never be her old self again. Before the war she had not known what nerves were. Now she knew very well.
--“Chinese Horses,” from The Silver Thorn (1928)

And this, perhaps my favorite among the first-paragraphs I read:

Death leapt upon the Rev. Charles Cardinal, Rector of St. Dreots in South Glebeshire, at the moment that he bent down towards the second long drawer of his washhand-stand; he bent down to find a clean collar.  It is in its way a symbol of his whole life, that death claimed him before he could find one.

At one moment his mind was intent upon his collar; at the next he was stricken with a wild surmise, a terror that even at that instant he would persuade himself was exaggerated.  He saw before his clouding eyes a black pit.  A strong hand striking him in the middle of his back flung him contemptuously forward into it; a gasping cry of protest and all was over.  Had time been permitted him he would have stretched out a hand towards the shabby black box that, true to all miserly convention, occupied the space beneath his bed.  Time was not allowed him.  He might take with him into the darkness neither money nor clean clothing.
--The Captives (1920)

In all honesty, there are some clues which point to Walpole’s fall from fame: he is too in love with the comma; subordinate clauses swell the sentences; and he never turned away an adjective begging to be written.

But yet, there is something about his writing which draws me in, makes me want to read more, despite the obvious flaws bogging down the pages.

Leafing further into The Silver Thorn, I come across a couple of passages from two short stories which tickle the bibliophile in me:

“What a jolly lot of books you have!” Foster turned round and looked at Fenwick with eager, gratified eyes. “Every book here is interesting! I like your arrangement of them too, and those open bookshelves—it always seems to me a shame to shut up books behind glass!”
--“The Tarn”

In [Miss Maxwell’s] heart of hearts she thought that nobody’s books looked quite so perfect in their shelves as did hers.  They seemed to like the room that they were in.  They wanted to show her that they did, and there was so much sun in that library that their hearts were thoroughly warm, and some of the most cynical books in the world became quite amiable and kindly from living in that particular corner of that library.  In fact, after reading Stendhal one winter very seriously, she moved him bag and baggage from the rather chilly corner by the door and put him in the sun-drenched spot near the window and hoped it would do him good.
--“Chinese Horses”

Well, I’m sorry to report that, due to the location of the Ws in my own library, Mr. Walpole’s books will have to lodge in the passageway just outside my main library in the basement.  It’s a dark and sometimes chilly location, but I hope that the warmth of Walpole’s sentences will brighten the gloom of Virginia Woolf, Richard Yates, and Emile Zola.

I could be entirely mistaken about the perceived charms of Walpole’s writing.  After I start reading his novels, he may turn out to be like that cool guy you meet at the party who seems full of wit and outrageous exploits, but who—after you get to know him and have heard him drone through the same stories for the fourth time—turns out to be nothing more than a pompous blowhard.   If that’s the case, Mr. Walpole, you deserve your cold, dark shelf in the basement.   Otherwise, I'm glad to have made your acquaintance.

Monday, May 24, 2010

This is Not a Christmas Story


I'm happy to report that Narrative magazine has just published one of my short stories about Iraq, "This is Not a Christmas Story."  Here's a small excerpt:

Perkins’s patrol had moved out the gate at around 1700 hours. The team had been waiting nearly two hours for the commander to make up his mind whether or not to trust a tip a hajji had called in to our anonymous hotline.
“You say the caller was a doctor?” he asked one of his captains.
“Roger, sir. At least that’s what the translators in the call center told us.”
“A medical doctor or like a university kind of doctor?”
“No telling, sir,” the captain said. “He could have a degree in horseshit for all we know. I don’t trust those hajji translators. They tell us anything they want.”
The battalion commander silently chewed his gum and stared at a map of our portion of Baghdad. “Hell with it,” he said. “If you can’t trust a hajji with a degree, who can you trust?”
His captains laughed nervously. Fifteen minutes later, Perkins and the rest of the platoon were moving out, quickly merging into the thick traffic on Route Irish.

You can read the story in its entirety by registering at the site--it's free and gives you access to lots of great stories, poems and interviews.  My deepest thanks to editors Tom Jenks and Mimi Kusch for helping me make this story live up to its full potential.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Soup and Salad: Stieg Larsson, the "Lost" Booker, Civil War Medal of Honor, Be-Witchery, Teen Sci-Fi, "Lost" Redux

On today's menu:

1.  The New York Times Magazine's Charles McGrath nicely sums up the cut-short life of Stieg Larsson and the subsequent squabbling over his estate.  I've yet to read any of the "Girl" novels, but The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a prominent blip on my radar.  As McGrath tells it, the post-death life of Larsson is a potboiler saga full of assassination conspiracies, an unfinished manuscript on a laptop, and a couple of chauvinistic relatives critical of the author's girlfriend ("The Larssons have suggested that Gabrielsson is mentally unstable. And in a television interview, Joakim pointed out, unhelpfully, that they had testicles and she didn’t.").

2. Another Dead Author Honored:  JG Farrell is the winner of the "Lost" Booker award 40 years after he should have rightfully claimed the prize:  "Troubles was one of six novels published in 1970 to be shortlisted for the Lost Booker, intended to reward books that were ineligible when they were published, thanks to a shift in the fledgling prize's schedule that year, which resulted in the exclusion of almost 12 months' worth of novels from consideration.  More than 4,000 readers worldwide cast votes for their favourite shortlisted novel, with Troubles taking 38% of the vote, more than double that of other contenders by Muriel Spark, Nina Bawden, Shirley Hazzard, Mary Renault and Patrick White."  I've never read Troubles, didn't vote in the Lost Booker poll, and am not familiar with any of the other books on the short-list, so I don't really have a dog in this fight.  It's just nice to see writers get their due, even if they're not around to enjoy it.  A Confederacy of Dunces, anyone?

3.  More from the Better-Late-Than-Never Dept.:  A Civil War soldier will get the Medal of Honor....147 years after Gettysburg.

4.  January Magazine has a capsule review of Mary Sharratt's new novel The Daughters of the Witching Hill.  I really enjoyed her previous novel The Real Minerva, and I'm anxious to delve into this tale of witch hunts in Ye Olde England.

5.  Over at HiLowbrow, Joshua Glenn takes us on a tour of Young Adult Science-Fiction (1964-1983).  Back when I was a YA, I wasn't really into robots, spaceships and scantily-clad women on Venus (okay, maybe I was into that).  I might have read a Tom Swift here and there and I do recall making it through A Wrinkle in Time.  But Heinlein?  Nah.  The Hilowbrow list, however, sparks my interest.  I have spacesuit, maybe I'll travel.

6.  Speaking of traveling, it's back to the Island for one more look at The Books of Lost over at Paste Magazine.  I'd forgotten about Ben Linus' use of the Henry Gale alias.  This just fuels the fire of my theory that tonight's finale will be something like the end of The Wizard of Oz:
UNCLE HENRY:  She got quite a bump on the head -- we kinda thought there for a minute she was going to leave us.
PROFESSOR:  Oh --
DOROTHY:  But I did leave you, Uncle Henry -- that's just the trouble. And I tried to get back for days and days.
AUNT EM:  There, there, lie quiet now. You just had a bad dream.
DOROTHY:  No --
HUNK:  Sure -- remember me -- your old pal, Hunk?
HICKORY:  And me -- Hickory?
ZEKE:  You couldn't forget my face, could you?
DOROTHY:  No. But it wasn't a dream -- it was a place.  And you -- and you -- and you -- and you were there.
PROFESSOR:  Oh --
(others laugh)
DOROTHY: But you couldn't have been, could you?
AUNT EM:  Oh, we dream lots of silly things when we --
DOROTHY:  No, Aunt Em -- this was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some of it wasn't very nice....

Friday, May 21, 2010

"Lost," in translation

The hissing roar of a jet engine crescendos. An eye snaps open. A well-dressed man sits up, runs through clacking bamboo, spills out onto a beach, only to find…

A television show that might well have called itself Unsolved Mysteries.

Yes, wouldn’t it have been nice to have Robert Stack walking along the beach in his trenchcoat, making his way among dazed and confused passengers (i.e. viewers) of Oceanic 815, explaining it all to us with that calming, halting voice of his? Instead, we got Rod Serling tag-teaming with David Lynch as they read from The Most Confounding Philosophers of the Enlightenment—starting with John Locke and working their way through Hume, Rousseau, and Carlyle.

So, here we are, six Lost seasons later holding a tangle of threads in our hands, hoping against hope that they’ll all be tied into one big loop by the time the last sentimental drop has been wrung from our tear-ducts during this Sunday’s series finale. The Big-Event episode will end with either the symphonic bang of Tchaikovsky cannons or the whimper of ten million disappointed fans.

I’m voting for the latter, but hoping for the former.

My wife and I have been with the show from the first frame, when Jack Shephard’s startled eye popped open, and we’ll be there at the end when (I’m guessing) Michael Giacchino’s score will fill our home theater system with swelling saccharine violins. What started with the tease of a polar bear on a tropical island will ultimately collapse in a rushed attempt to explain why every third character was named for an 18th-century Scottish philosopher; or how the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 actually symbolize the chasm between free will and fate; or how if you play “You All Everybody” backwards you’ll discover that Paul is alive and well…on the Other side of the island.

As for me, the only question I want answered is: “Why, oh why, did you kill off my favorite character, Mr. Eko?”

There have been high moments (the aforementioned polar bear, the first big-reveal of John Locke’s wheelchair, that Double Indemnity episode with Nikki and Paulo) and there have been low (Jack’s beard, cage-sex, Season 6 in its entirety). Through it all, we’ve hung in there—waiting for Mr. Eko to emerge from the jungle riding on the back of a polar bear.

Truthfully, I can’t really complain about a series that interspersed the boar hunts and dynamited pirate ships with scenes of characters…reading. Dare I even mention that my heart skipped several beats when I saw Jacob turning the pages of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge? Okay, the producers valued the book for its title more than its content. But still, Flannery Frickin’ O’Connor on prime-time television? I thought I’d died and got unstuck in time.

Literary thrills aside, Lost has ultimately become like the spouse stricken with cancer: you love them dearly, you hate to see them in so much pain, and you’ll both be relieved when the end finally comes. Sad, but relieved.

This Sunday, All (or Most, or Nothing) will be revealed. I’m only slightly comforted by the fact that in this interview, series gurus Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof claim they’re not going to pull a Sopranos on us:
I think one of the really brilliant things about The Sopranos [finale] as a storyteller is the artistry of it...Basically David Chase said: I'm going to take away from you the first feeling, which is that feeling of "The show's over. How do I feel about that?" -- and he replaced it with "What just happened? Did my cable go out? I'm a little surprised by this." So the idea that the show ended so abruptly, as opposed to, we moved out of the diner and he played the emotion of, ah, this is the final shot of The Sopranos -- this is what it is.
We did the exact opposite. We leaned into the emotion.
 Cue Mr. Giacchino and his violins.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Making Every Word Tell

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell.
               --Strunk and White
               The Elements of Style

As I plunge into this new stage of writing with all ten fingers--the grinding, exhilarating light-footed slog of revision--I try to keep quotes like this from Mr. Strunk and Mr. White close at hand.  Even as I work past my impatience to be done with this novel and move on to the next (and the next and the next), I must control myself, narrow my focus down to the page, and make every word tell.

As Hemingway once said in a letter to Max Perkins:  "I never use a word if I can avoid it, but if I must have it I know it."

And so I write, scalpel in hand.

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.