Desert to the Med, then home to Van

  • West of Kandahar

    This is how it goes: One day you’re walking in the desert with a machine gun. You pass through villages and fields and cute kids with bad teeth smile and yell “Kalam! Kalam!”, or “Biscor!”.

“Nezda biscor!” you say to them, and maybe an older boy picks up a rock and you throw one back at him. The kids here throw rocks way better that any of you army guys, but its all a game anyway, usually. One or two kids even remember your name. Whenever the column stops the kids crowd around you and you talk to them, maybe kick a rock with them since they’re so damn poor they don;t even have balls. Even kids in Africa all have soccer balls, but not these Afghan ones.
Sometimes these kids catch a glimpse of blonde arm hairs between the black gloves and cuff of your OTW shirt. They pull at the blonde hairs with their fingers and talk quietly together in Pashto. One or two of the boys, maybe four and five years old, don’t care about you arm hairs. They’re looking at the gun. Your talking to all these kids, watching your arcs as well, kicking the rock, and keeping your hand well over the trigger-mec and safety. They run their fingers along the barrel and try to turn the flashlight on, and maybe they tap the Pac-4 and say ‘lazer’, one of the only English words they know.
“Yeah it’s a lazer,” You say. Then one of them sees your watch and goes crazy, wants to trade something, and you’d give it to him in a second but it’s your watch and you need it, and where would you get another one?
One time you trade your seven dollar imitation Spyder-Co for a crappy bone handled jack-knife a million years old, just to encourage the kid.
In an alley you meet a motorbike and the guy stops and you get him to turn the engine off. His wife is on the back and all you see of her is the square of mesh in front of the eyes and the long blue burkha that hangs all the way past her ankles. You haven’t seen a girl your own age in four months, except through a spotting scope perhaps, when they’re walking along with their kids four hundred meters away and don’t know that you’re watching them. When they’re walking alone like that, away from men, they fold the burkhas back and let hem hang like a cape.
“Hey, that one’s alright,” Razz would mutter, and you’d shove him and say “Let me look!”
The guy on the motorbike gets off and walks towards you and you stretch your arms demonstratively out like a cross, the gun hanging from your neck on its rope-lengthened sling.
Everyone knows the drill around here and you search him quickly and all he has is a cellphone and a tin of the green granular chew and some prayer beads in the pocket of his vest. The 2IC, Ropert, has your back, so it’s safe to walk past this guy now. It probably would be anyway, but you never know. The girl is still on the motorbike and you feel like a total ass-hole when you can’t even look her in the face and you simply make a motion with your hand that she should get off the bike for a sec. You don’t say a word to her. Truth is, for all you know it could be a guy hiding under that burkha. Custom and culture can be excellent shields.
She moves to the side of the road about five meters back and stands motionless.
The bike seat is covered in lamb-skin and on the back there’s an old yellow vegetable-oil jug full of milk. Good to go.
You motion to the man and say “Mananah,” and on the second kick the Honda fires up and the couple drives past you.
Ropert already passed it on that there’s a motorbike coming up the line and they’ve been searched. At the front they’ve finished talking to an elder and the patrol carries on.
You walk again, through villages, and pass long mud walls into adjacent fields where opium poppies catch in the weapon’s bi-pod and are torn off at their stems to hang stoically. Families are working in the field and they look at you and some of them wave, and the boys your age give you a hard look and maybe laugh and talk loudly with each other in Pashto, or run their fingers along their throats just like you would do if soldiers came to your country. Some of the old men smile and stop to talk.
“Salam-alay-cum,” you say, or sometimes you just look them in the eyes and nod.
Those are the good days: When nothing is found and nothing explodes.

Now. Fast forward.
Take a Globemaster out of Kandahar at 0300. Land in UAE and transfer to Ryan Air. Arrive Cyprus. Wake up on the fourth story hotel balcony. You’re sitting in a wicker chair and on your lips there’s the black and white memory of a nice Russian chick, blonde obviously. Sambuca and absinthe is stagnating in your mouth and a song from last night is still playing softly in your head. At the free breakfast downstairs you’ll still be humming it and shortly after that, somewhere between here and the small pebbly beach it’ll be totally forgotten.
The soft breeze from the med sweeps the skin on your shoulders and behind you the curtain rises on tippy-toes and tries to inch away. On the three balconies below you a mess of sword-fish [not yours] that we ate by the harbour lies splattered. Woody was passed out naked in the bathroom and you tripped on him when you came in after sneaking past the security cameras via an unlocked fire escape. On the manicured lawn there’s a long strip of white toilet paper, just like that tail that latches on to your shoe if you don’t watch out.

UNESCO World Heritage Site, Paphos, Cyprus. A glimpse of daylight between swordfish, sambuca and karaoke

Four days vanish and then another plane ride. Forty minutes to re-fuel in Toulouse, France. They could only get away with keeping us on here because we’re soldiers. I’m not an expert, but re-fuelling an air-plane full of people must violate some kind of law somewhere, must it not? Whatever. No biggy.
Want to hear a funny story? My buddy Cash was on his way home from his first tour two years ago, and suddenly, mid-air the plane lost power. All the lights went out and they began to sink and a few people panicked. How shitty would it be to crash on the way home? Out of the sandbox and into the Atlantic.
Turns out they got struck by lightning, apparently a common thing on aircraft. The power turned back on and an announcement was made and that was it.

Thirty hours later you land in Trenton, then Ottawa, then Edmonton. In Ed, before you disembark they announce that a guy still overseas just got killed. You recognize the name and know that you had a conversation with him once, about two month ago, when the convoy came by a base one night to drop off some American Seabees. These things happen.
Now that you’re almost there, spend some hours in Ed doing paperwork that could’ve been finished before you even got there.
And then, finally, home to Van.
You walk through the terminal in your desert uniform and families are there to greet you. That night, BBQ on the beach and swim in the cold Pacific. That’s when you can really let out your breath. Anything that kills you now had nothing to do with the last seven month. A bit like T.E. Lawrence biting it on a motorcycle after blowing up his trains.

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