Tuesday, July 26, 2011

From the Cutting-Room Floor: If a helicopter falls from the sky and no one is around to see it, does it make a sound?

The merciless revision of Fobbit* continues...

This past weekend, I cut another 13,000 words from the manuscript of my novel-in-progress about the Iraq War.  I re-shuffled major portions of the story, added a new opening prologue, and artificially separated sections into chapters.  When I sat back in my chair Sunday night, a vein on my temple throbbing painfully, it felt good to have "killed my darlings."  But the novel looks different to me now--as if it went from being a toddler throwing food from his high-chair to a kid who neatly combs his hair and says "Yes, ma'am" and "Yes, sir," when asked to clean his room.**  My book is starting to behave and that pleases me.

What makes me a little melancholy, however, are all those bits and scraps I whittled away.  These were words I created, pulled from the thin air in my head, and made an integral weave in the fabric of the novel.  Their absence makes the novel cleaner and leaner, but it's sad to see them go to waste.  Some of the excised sections will probably have a second life in a short story somewhere down the line, but others are meaningless outside of context.

So, lucky you, I'll post a couple of them here at the blog, for better or worse....

The following section was cut because it didn't advance the plot in any significant way, only adding a bit more "atmosphere" to what goes on*** in the 7th Armored Division's task-force headquarters in Baghdad.  For those new to the blog, here's the pitch for the novel:
Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. never wanted to be a soldier, but after 16 years as a journalist in the Army, he’s deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a public affairs team.  In the cubicle jungle of military headquarters, he must juggle the demands of phone calls from CNN, compile reports of daily body counts, and placate a boss prone to nosebleeds (Lieutenant Colonel Eustace Harkleroad).  Gooding lives the safe, air-conditioned life of a rear-echelon soldier, but out on the streets of Baghdad, it’s a different story.  The novel also follows a platoon of combat infantry soldiers led by Sergeant Brock Lumley—another career soldier who is also questioning his role as a warrior stuck between bringing peace to a country that may not want it and carrying out the orders of his less-intelligent superior officers, one of whom takes impetuous action on a mission which might just spark an international scandal.  Gooding, the public affairs soldier, must eventually deal with the media fallout from the actions by Lumley’s men.

You can read more excerpts from the novel by clicking on the Fobbit label.  A couple of other things to know:  1) "SMOG" stands for "Secure Military Operations Grid," the computer network which links Army units in Iraq and tracks Significant Activities of units out on the streets.  2)  Major Philip "Flip" Filipovich is the 7th Armored Division's media relations officer; he can't stand Harkleroad and seizes every opportunity to weasel out of doing the things he's asked.

From the Diary of Chance Gooding Jr.

June 5, 2005:  Periodically during my shifts, I’m required to log onto the SMOG computer where I download the latest Sig Acts, then print them out.  I sort them by type, location and intensity.  Then, pencil in hand, I enter the statistics onto what I call our “bubble chart”—a spreadsheet categorized by events like IEDs, SAF (small-arms fire), hand grenade, Escalation of Force, etc.  The chart is lined with rows of circles where I’m supposed to fill in the unit, the Sig Act number and the time it was reported.

It seems like a mindless task, filling out the bubble chart, but it really does help us mentally compartmentalize the Sig Acts which can come at us in blizzards of up to 60 a day.

At the end of the day, that bubble chart and the day’s Sig Acts are stapled together and put in a pile in a cardboard box underneath my desk.

That’s it—they go no further, not even Harkleroad’s inbox.  The only ones who even peruse the bubble charts are me and Specialist Carnicle, who is required to perform the same task during her graveyard shift.

Apparently, when we reach a certain number of bubbles on the “Total Attacks” row, it’s supposed to indicate different levels of alarm we’re supposed to be feeling.  Eight attacks?  A slow day—a terrorist holiday, perhaps.  20 attacks?  Better keep an eye on it.  35 attacks?  Uh-oh.  45 and above and we run out of bubbles on the chart.  At that point, I think the sprinkler system goes off and alarm bells ring.

Downloading, printing and tracking the Sig Acts is something I’m supposed to do once every two hours…or when I hear increased chatter over the SMOG loudspeaker and I know some bad shit is going down out there on the streets of Baghdad.

And sometimes, like this morning, the bad shit just walks right up and shakes your hand:

11:19 a.m.  Lt. Col. Harkleroad bumbles his way over to my desk with that ass-pucker expression on his face.  “Sergeant Gooding, I need you to pull out your PR template for downed aircraft and get it ready.”

“Why, sir?  Something happen?”

Harkleroad just looks at me and I don’t even need a verbal answer.  I know by the panic in his eyes that we’ve lost another helicopter.

He quick-marches back out of the cubicle, bound for some contingency meeting.

I look over at Major Filipovich, but he’s no help at all.  He’s pretending to sleep, but I can see his eyes crack open in a half-squint every so often.  He’ll just let me sit here marinating in my own sweat and piss no matter how bad it gets.  Thanks a lot, sir!

I open my press-release template folder, but realize I don’t already have one prepared for a situation like this.  So, I start from scratch—which is easy at this point since I don’t know diddley squat about what happened.

I go to the SMOG computer and log on to see what they’ve got on the helicopter.  Not much—apart from a time and grid coordinate.

I go back to my computer and type a two-sentence press release.

11:54 a.m.  Harkleroad returns, details clutched in his clammy palms.  I set to work.

12:16 p.m.  After the colonels sprinkle their holy water over the press release, blessing my words, I send it up to Corps:  “A Multi-National Division-Baghdad helicopter crashed June 5 around 11 a.m. northwest of Baghdad.  The crash is under investigation.”  That’s it.  Just 19 words (if you count the numbers, too).  But you wouldn’t believe the gut-knotting approval process those 19 words have to go through here in the headquarters building.  I can hear the decision-making chatter buzzing throughout the cubicles:

“Hmm, do we want to identify what kind of helicopter it is?”

“No, I don’t think so, because if we do it will too-closely identify the unit it came from.”

“Do we say ‘crash’ when we’re still not sure if it was shot down or not?”

“I think we’re safe with ‘crash’ because, after all, that’s what happened when it hit the ground.  It crashed into the ground, right?  No matter who did what to get it there.”

Do we know who did what?”

“I’m not at liberty to divulge at this juncture.”

“That’s a nice, safe answer.”

“It’s what I’m sticking with.”

Meanwhile, on the TV at my elbow, Fox News is breathlessly squawking about the helicopter being shot down:  “Witnesses report seeing a white trail of smoke shooting up from the ground toward the aircraft just moments before the Blackhawk plunged to the earth.”  They’ve scooped everyone else and they’re practically peeing their pants with excitement.  We’ve said nothing (so far) about it being shot down.

Of course, the fact that Fox is saying it over the airwaves—beaming it into the television sets of families back home in Georgia—causes a brief flurry of apoplexy in the command group.  “No one’s said a goddamned word about enemy fire bringing down this bird!  We still have no proof of what brought it down, goddammit!!”

Colonels and generals descend from the third floor, converging on Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad.  The voices seep from under his office door out into the floor of the operations area.

Harkleroad defends himself with a squeaky, “I didn’t say anything to them, sir.   My lips have remained sealed, as ordered.”

The third-floor colonels subsequently direct Harkleroad to call up Fox and find out what the good-goddamned tiddlywinks they think they’re doing reporting unreliable information—information which could compromise our on-going recovery operations right now.  They’re putting U.S. lives at risk, for God’s sake!

Harkleroad (meekly):  “Will do, sir.”

12:57 p.m.  A Japanese television station calls and I can barely hear the reporter through the static, but I realize he wants me to comment on the helicopter which, um, fell from the sky.  He wants me to confirm shoot-down; I only confirm “fell.”  Nothing more, nothing less.

1:07 p.m.   Fredericka from Reuters calls and I repeat the same information to her.  I talk to Fredericka about once a week and, out of all the reporters, she’s always the most polite and usually sounds somewhat astounded when I give her information she can use—”Oh!  Thank you, thank you so much, Staff Sergeant Gooding!”  It’s like I told her I’d be over in an hour to clean her bathroom and bake some cookies.

1:10 p.m.  CBS News calls.  They get the same yadda-yadda.

1:16 p.m.  Fox News has the story on their website—complete with the Blackhawk being “shot down.”  A dozen follicles of hair fall from Harkleroad’s head in a nervous, spontaneous shedding.

3:29 p.m.  Major Filipovich, who thinks he has the answer for everything when it comes to dealing with the media quickly and fairly, retreats deeper into his cubicle, muttering, “We’re hitting a fly on the wall with a hammer.”  I’m not sure what it means, but he repeats it several times in the course of an hour, in between slamming down the phone and throwing a chair halfway across the cubicle in one of his tempers.  Even going to the gym in the afternoon doesn’t help him work out his frustration and aggression.

7:42 p.m.  I receive confirmation from Air Ops that the Blackhawk experienced “engine malfunction” and was forced to make a “hard landing.”  No one was hurt and the pilots walked away, bruised and grinning sheepishly.  I rewrite the press release with the new facts, get it approved by Harkleroad, et al.

8:02 p.m.  I issue the update to the media on my e-mail distribution list.  I get no response (apart from two bounce-back undeliverables).

8:21 p.m.  Just before I go off shift for the night and Specialist Carnicle arrives with the new paperback novel she’ll be reading on graveyard, I check my e-mail one last time.  Gus from ABC writes, “Thanks a lot for the anti-climax” and Fredericka gushes a predictable “Thank you SO MUCH for this update, Sergeant Gooding!  Have a nice night!”

News of the copter crash has evaporated from the TV at my elbow, trumped by reports from Terri Schaivo’s bedside that there’s a kink in her feeding tube.  Her right-to-die struggle is, after all, a viable life-and-death story.

*For those playing along at home, I still don't have a new title for the novel.  I've had some great suggestions so far from blog readers, but none have clicked-and-hummed with my agent.  I'm still keeping some of the suggestions on the back burner, but for now I'm sticking with the original name for the book, Fobbit, until something better comes along.

**As a parent, I'm well aware this is only a brief, blessed phase in the life of a child.

***As with many episodes in Fobbit, this "diary" entry was taken nearly word-for-word from the journal I kept during my tour of duty in Baghdad in 2005.  I've thrown in a few embellishments, but the meat of the scene remains true.

1 comment:

  1. So, this is a cut part? I think it is very well written, had me ready to go to the next page.