Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Soggy Surprise of Baghdad (an excerpt)

That's a photo of the guard shack outside our division task force headquarters in Baghdad, March 2005.  Notice the rain leaping upwards from the sidewalk.  Notice the huddled misery of the two guards on duty.

Rain was an unexpected fact of life for many of us Fobbits during the deployment.  Rain...desert...those aren't two words we ordinarily put in the same sentence.  Unless of course, you'd already been to Iraq or Kuwait; unless you had experienced a Middle Eastern winter; unless you knew to expect the unexpected.  Which most of us under-deployed Fobbits had not.

I was thinking about this particular soggy surprise as I was working on Fobbit this morning.  Here's an excerpt from the work-in-progress.  (Note: a "Twee" is the novel's slang for "Third World Employee," the contracted international workers who helped keep the Forward Operating Base humming along on a daily basis).

*     *     *

That night, the rain started.

As Fobbits slept in their tin trailers, the noise of the accelerating drops crept in with a gradual hiss until it filled their dreams with static.  Those light sleepers who were awakened by full bladders (surfacing from subliminal dreams about rivers) tugged on their boots and stumbled to the door, forgetting even their mandatory rifles in their groggy haste to get to the latrines.  But when they were stopped short in the doorway by the startling sight of the rain, billowing in curtains across the Life Support Area, they reacted with a variety of “Shits!” and “Fucks!” and “Day-ums!”  No way were they going out into that, no way no-how.  Desperate and curling at the waist, they dug through their trash can until they found an empty Gatorade bottle, and let loose the flood as they drained the snake with an “Aaahhhh….”  Those brash males who couldn’t find an empty bottle, simply stood in their doorway and pissed an arc over the porch.

Females, not so lucky in the anatomy department, bundled into the three layers of uniform and, hands clutched down on their helmets, made a dash for it.

The rain continued through the night until breakfast, didn’t stop for lunch, and showed no sign of relenting for dinner.  It rained for three days and four nights, pausing only once on the second day to take a brief drizzly break before plunging back into a full torrent.

This was a freezing, needle-sharp rain that pounded against the sand with such a fury the ground was unable to withstand the assault and closed its pores.  Rain now bounced back into the air 18 inches, so that soldiers walking to the dining facility were drenched from above and from below.

Rainwater refused to penetrate more than an inch of the Iraqi topsoil and it was not long before puddles grew to ponds and ponds enlarged to lakes 200 feet in diameter.  Soldiers, contractors, Local Nationals, and Twees alike walked around the FOB trying to find anything that looked like “high ground” in the expanding puddles—even medium-sized pebbles were good enough for dry places to set down a boot.  Soldiers unable to walk anywhere but along the side of the paved roads, slowed traffic to an impatient crawl.  Frustrated drivers from infantry squads swerved as close as possible to these Fobbits who were stepping along so dainty to avoid the mud.  Served them right, the fuckers, if they had to move over into the muck for once and get a little shit-splash on their starched BDUs.

Everywhere you walked in the FOB, it was Mud City.  This was no ordinary chocolate-pudding mud—it was thick as wet cement which clung to your boots in gathering clumps.  When you stepped onto the gravel walkways, the rocks stuck to the mud, aggregating with every step until you felt you were wearing Frankenstein’s boots.  At the entrance to the palace, you tried to scrape off the mud-gravel glue, but it refused to come off easily and when you did get some of it off your boots, you end up stepping in someone else’s scrapings and that stuck to you.  For a few days, it was like watching a silent film comedian struggle with flypaper stuck to his fingers.  The Army thoughtfully provided boot scrapers with bristle-brushes at each entrance; but, just like a Laurel and Hardy gag, as you ran your boot over the bristles, the mud flicked up and peppered your face; and when you try to wiped it off with the heel of your hand, it smeared across your cheeks and chin.  Another fine fucking mess indeed.

After spending the first two days darting from doorway to doorway, seeking shelter in the occasional concrete bunker or nearest Port-a-Potty, most Fobbits gave up and allowed themselves to be drenched because at that point it seemed there was no end to the rain.  Many of the most miserable Fobbits had no one to blame but themselves.  They were the ones, after all, who had scoffed at the wet-weather gear on the packing list back at Fort Stewart—"We’re going to the desert for God’s sake!  Sun, sand, and more sun!  They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about”—and had made the impetuous and later-regrettable decision to leave the water-proof jacket and trousers back in Georgia (along with the compasses, water-purification tablets, and Arabic-English dictionaries).  Those Fobbits with equally-green NCOs were able to slip through the shake-down inspections by saying they had the wet-weather gear, but they must have left it in the car and yes, sergeant, they would go fetch it right after the inspection, you betcha.  And so the Fobbit NCOs, their heads already stuffed with the last-minute details of deploying troops for the first time, herding the cats into some semblance of routine and discipline, trusted them and believed they would go overseas with wet-weather-outfitted soldiers.  Meanwhile, the privates secretly pumped their fists and said, “Yesss!”  These were the undeployed, the combat virgins, who for the first time in their Army careers were taking their first serious look at a packing list.  They believed they knew better than the list, that the items on it were mostly suggestions anyhow.  And so, they tossed the wet-weather gear into a corner (or did indeed leave it in their cars).  They filled the extra space in their duffle bags with hair dryers, Frisbees, contoured memory-foam pillows, teddy bears given to them by their one true love at the senior prom, espresso machines, extra bottles of Jeri-Curl, scented stationery, and—in the case of Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding—the Complete Works of Charles Dickens.

Yes, Gooding was pretty fucking miserable, thanks for asking.  As he walked to chow on the Third Day of Rain, he hunched his shoulders and tried to angle his head so the water ran off his Kevlar in such a way that it avoided the open space at the top of his collar.  He had varying success with this technique—apart from looking like Quasimodo’s cousin, the rain had made a rivulet down his spine, streamed over his ass-crack and now there was a squishy mess between his legs where his soaked underwear had bunched up.

To reach the dining facility, he had to pass through a Life Support Area of another brigade which had just arrived in Iraq and whose engineers had not had time to lay down gravel paths.  The LSA was a sea of churning mud.  Humvees had barreled through the roads, slip-slopping from side to side, digging deep ruts and throwing spatter along the sides of the trailers.  The rain hissed down with particular fury on this neighborhood of the FOB.  It was a particular hell Gooding had never bargained for when, in that impetuous moment three months ago, he’d flung aside his wet-weather gear, hoping his fellow NCOs wouldn't notice the bulge of Dickens in his duffel.

Gooding passed a soldier down on his hands and knees in the middle of the brown-black paste.  His arm was elbow-deep in the mud and he didn’t look happy.

Gooding called to him, “What’s the matter?  You need help with anything?”

The soldier raised his mud-streaked face and grimaced.  “Lost my fucking boot, sarge.  Fucking thing just came right off my fucking foot and now I can’t find it.”  He shoved his arm down into the mud again.  “It’s really fucking deep!”

Gooding waved, shouted over the wet hiss, “Sorry to hear that,” but kept right on walking.  No need to multiply his own misery.  Besides, Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad was waiting for his dinner to be delivered.  Once Gooding had finished with his own meal, he was to build a to-go plate for his boss and bring it back to the palace where the PAO cell was working overtime on a little counter-intelligence mission involving multiple reams of press releases.  Gooding was walking from one hell to the next.

When he emerged from the dining facility forty minutes later--Harkleroad’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes and strawberry shortcake carefully covered in plastic wrap--Gooding stopped short.  He even let loose a little gasp.

The rain had stopped and the sun was slicing through the clouds, already drying the mud into hardened peaks and valleys that, for weeks to come, would be treacherous for weak ankles.

Gooding started to walk back to the palace, already feeling lighter in mood as his uniform began to steam and dry out.  He walked past a particularly large pond in the LSA.  A Twee (Korean, by the looks of him) emerged from the barber shop trailer, walked to the edge of the water and released a boat made from folded paper.  He stood there with his hands in his pockets smiling at his little boat as it rocked across the surface of the mud-puddle pond until it soaked up too much of the rain water and sank.  He grinned at Gooding then walked back inside the barber shop.

Gooding stood there a moment longer, also smiling at the thought of how the toy boat had managed to stay afloat for a brief happy minute.  Then he turned and slopped his way back to what waited for him.

1 comment:

  1. "This was a freezing, needle-sharp rain that pounded against the sand with such a fury the ground was unable to withstand the assault and closed its pores."

    That's the only really bad sentence I found. Did like the laundry list of things brought from home - wished it could have gone on a little longer.