MOCHA CHOCOLATE SALVATION |
February 14, 2007
MOCHA CHOCOLATE SALVATION
Name: SGT Roy Batty
Posting date: 2/14/07
Stationed in: Baghdad, Iraq
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
I had been out of bed for less than an hour, and was already fighting tooth and nail not to have a bad day. Do you ever have mornings like that? Daybreaks where everything in the house is doing its dead level best to trip you up? Where it seems that the bitter angels of daylight have conspired against you all night, and you are flailing helplessly within their carefully cast nets?
I woke up on the wrong side of bed, which is hard to do since one side is an aging brick wall. I was grumpy even before my eyes opened, before the dull gray gloom of the Bat Cave made its way into my sleepy noggin, even before the early morning rap music and bellows of the soldiers around me started up. My arms and legs and head ached mercilessly, inexplicably, as if I had been up all night drinking Irish whiskey and fighting dockworkers instead of snoring away in my dusty, rattletrap excuse of a bed.
"How can I be pissed off already, even before I wake up?", I asked myself.
Oh yeah. The wife.
I had gone to bed disgruntled. Barbara had missed our date to chat on Yahoo Messenger, and not answered the house phone or her cellphone when I called. Finally she called me, but only after midnight, after I had already gone to bed and was sinking comfortably into that delicious opium haze of pre-sleep. Something about a party at the neighbor's house across the hall, which I had cut off with a curt "I'll talk to you later", delivered with all the self-righteous pain of a hurt and sleepy husband.
Year-long deployments into combat zones are not conducive to healthy marriages. We do better than most, and have been luckier than some. There are friends of mine, here on this deployment, who have been home with their families for 18 months out of the past four years, due to almost constant rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan. This is my first tour -- well, I should say our first deployment, since it affects us both, in equal yet different ways. She has to deal with my close encounters with car bombs, snipers and IEDs. I have to deal with her New Year's Eve in London, defective cellphones, and the knowledge that she is on an Army base in Germany surrounded by 5,000 horny soldiers. Vivid imaginations may be great for aspiring writers, but they suck for skydivers and deployed husbands.
So, I wake up grumpy. Grumpy and a little late. We have load-up in 30 minutes for the day's mission. No time for a shower. Okay, no big deal. This is the Army at War (try not to laugh) so my teammates can probably deal with a slightly stinky Sergeant. They're probably used to it by now.
So the grumpy ex-Marine Neanderthal prepares to lumber outside for the morning smoke and a quick guzzle of the DoubleShot to wake himself up. I rummage through the evil hadji wall locker and locate the crumpled carton of Camels within its steel bowels. I call it the evil hadji wall locker since it is locally made and seems to be imbued with the spirit of a Stephen King short story. Its unfinished metal edges love to slice open unsuspecting hands on a daily basis, despite the 1SG's mandate that all of them be marked with little white signs screaming CAUTION! SHARP EDGES! It grins at me with gray industrial malice, yet deigns to let me retrieve my smokes unmarked. This time. I got all year, sweetcheeks.
Agh. I'm down to one pack. Barely enough to last the day. Oh well, I have backup, in the form of barely-smokable Iraqi cigarettes. "Miami"s. The clerk at the Hadji shop that sold them to me grinned and tapped them exuberantly -- "Oh, yes, American cig'ret!" Yeah, right, buddy. I think of a friend of mine who was here for OIF I. For some of her tour, her company was billeted at an Iraqi cigarette factory, along with a group of Marines. The jarheads thought it the height of hilarity to piss and shit in the vats of tobacco on the assembly line whenever no one was watching. After the soldiers moved on for more prestigious living quarters, the Iraqi owners came back to restart operations, and simply turned the machines back on. I only smoke the hadji cigarettes when I'm really desperate.
Time for the canned espresso.
I reach on top of the wall locker for the precious case of Starbucks DoubleShot (no sharp edges up there, so I can reach blindly, in relative safety), and my sleepy fingers jitter and scrabble in search of the slim cans of liquid methamphetamine.
A frantic search of the cardboard box, and still nothing. Some scumbag has taken them -- not just the very last one, but the last TWO! I look over at SGT Y's empty bed. He left on RnR early this morning. Coincidence? I think not....
My dark mood deepens. This is seriously not cool. This is a disaster of epic proportions. This is the Hindenburg of early morning screw-ups. How can I face the dirty glories of Baghdad unfortified with my precious ampoules of caffeine? Man, I need a cigarette....
But first, I have to get dressed, and find a weapon. The front porch is a dangerous place, and Lord knows you have to be armed to go outside here. Actually, it is SOP everywhere in Iraq -- you must be armed 24/7. You will sometimes see these improbable little signs outside various buildings around the FOB -- PXs, chow halls, whatever. "All Soldiers Must Have Their Assigned Weapon And Ammunition In Order To Enter This Facility." As if that innocent looking Rueben sandwich laying on the Main Line might suddenly go native and charge you, ululating wildly. BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! "Gawddamn, Leroy, didya see that sumbitch? That was one them Mahdi Army Ruebens, sure as I'm standing here right now! Damn near got me, too, if it weren't for this here M9..."
I grab my ACU pants from their resting spot on the bunk above my bed, and yank them down. My leather shoulder holster is hanging from the side post of the bunk bed, full of the black metal of my 9 mil. It dislodges as I pull on the trousers, and plummets earthward.
The metal handgrip of the pistol lands squarely on my big toe, and the big bald half-naked man flails maniacally around the tiny living space, hopping on one foot and making those little grunting noises that men make when something really hurts and they don't want to let the 50 sleeping soldiers around them to know about it. Lest they wake up and make fun of him.
Eventually the toe stops screaming, and I look at it wearily in the dim light of my bedside lamp. Somehow it isn't broken, but there is a nice big cut on it which is bleeding freely. I need that cigarette more than ever, so I shove the toe into an Underarmor sock and into my Oakley boots, where it moans to itself, muffled in the fabric, whenever I take a step.
The cigarette does not dull the morning's discomfort, or my throbbing head, or take away from the obvious fact that I really am still in Baghdad and not the green hills of Bavaria. Every morning I wake up thinking that I will be somewhere sane and rational and halfway comfortable, and every morning I am a little stunned to find out I am still in Iraq. The rest of the morning takes the party line.
The truck I have been given today (since my usual one still languishes untouched in the dark greasy depths of the Motorpool of Lost Souls) doesn't have a Duke or a Rhino. There is no CLS kit. Some of the armor we installed is missing, since now the 1SG thinks that it might fragment if it got hit. The engine makes a weird, ominous clicking noise that we can't locate the source of during our PMCS. The fill for our radios isn't quite right, so we have to play with the timing. My squad leader yells at me in front of everybody for something petty. My boot is filling with blood. The lieutenant is assigned to ride with me today, which means at least four hours of inane questions, and worse yet, we won't be able to smoke in the truck. An infantry team got blown up last night on the route that we will be taking today, and the driver was killed. It's the kind of stuff that fills you with confidence...
At the first IP station we visit, an IED goes off a block away, hitting an Iraqi Army convoy. We are in the back parking lot of the station when it detonates, making us all duck and cringe instinctively, since it is so loud that it sounds like it is right next to us. I dash to the roof and scan the rooftops around the resultant pillar of smoke, looking for insurgents. A grenade goes off a few minutes later, sounding like a pop gun compared to the deep, rattling bass of the IED. The IA drive past us a few minutes later, popping off AK rounds as they go. It's fear shooting -- no one has attacked us, other than with the IED and the grenade, and they are just shooting at everyone and everything as they get out of the AO.
At the second IP station, we find a live artillery shell sitting outside of the front gate. After we have driven through the gate. Closer inspection reveals four 20mm high explosive tipped rounds next to it. The artillery shell is actually just the warhead, and a pretty big one -- 120mm, maybe? A little smaller than a 155, but still big enough to upset your already shitty day. Maybe it's a dud, maybe it's not. Who knows? I pass the info along to my squad leader, who is already inside the station. After a bit, one of the IPs trudges out of the building, stumbles over to the shell, picks it up, and starts to bring it inside. I guess they found it on patrol or something, and just decided to dump it on the trash pile right outside the station. He seems completely nonplussed when I strongly suggest to him that there is no freakin' way he's bringing that thing inside while we are here.
By the time we get "home", I am tired and grumpy and don't want to talk or look at anybody. I just want to dump my gear and hide in my corner of the room and go to sleep. Someone remarks that one of the other squads picked up mail at Rustimayah, but I don't even care. I'm not expecting anything. Leave me alone.
I'm almost asleep, covers pulled over my head, boots propped up on the ancient metal chair next to my bed, when one of the soldiers yells over the plywood wall that I have a package. A package? Me? I lumber to my feet and tromp out into the hallway to retrieve it.
It's from Shannon, completely out of the blue. I first met Shannon three years ago, through her husband, Steve, who is a K-9 MP in Germany where I'm stationed. Shannon was also an MP, and had been seriously wounded here during her tour during OIF I. She took a grenade to her back and legs, but stayed in the Army when she could easily have been medically discharged. This should give you an idea of how tough she is. She's also one of the single coolest and most beautiful people I have ever met, even though I have wound up on the wrong side of that toughness a couple times. Through a weird twist of fate, she came to be one of my soldiers when I was in Customs, and we used to argue and fight about every possible subject under the sun. Somehow, inexplicably, we have managed to stay good friends through it all. Steve and Shannon look after Barbara back in Germany, since they are also our neighbors. Best of all, since both of them have done tours in Iraq, they always send the absolute best care packages.
This one is no exception. Ramen noodles, Cup-o-Soups and Chef Boy-r-dee meals for those times where you miss the chowhall and just can't face another MRE. Chocolate candies for all the times in between. Two bags of bruschetta chips, that I initially pull out and look at quizzically. Until I pull out the next prize: Marmite. Okay, okay, I know that the non-British among you are asking, "What the hell is Marmite?" I will explain. Marmite is a black-tar-looking substance, made out of yeast extract. It sounds (and smells, to the uninitiated) horrible. I grew up in England, where it is a standard breakfast sandwich spread -- you put it on toast and butter. It's extremely savory, and, in my family, is a rare and much sought after commodity; a delicacy. For anyone that grew up NOT eating it, it is an abomination. I cannot imagine where Shannon found it, since it is virtually impossible to find outside of Great Britain, but she has not only sent me a giant jar of it, but even the toast to put it on. Now that's truly thoughtful!
The best is saved for last. A pack each of Camel Turkish Jade, Turkish Royal, and Turkish Silver -- again, very rare for us, since you cannot get them in Iraq or in Germany, either on-post or off. But wait, that's not all! Not one, not two, but three packs of Sweet Dreams flavored cigarettes.
I'm literally speechless, a broad grin plastered on my face. I love flavored cigarettes, and this miraculous appearance, at the end of a difficult and trying day, is the kind of thing that would bring tears of gratitude to the eyes of less-Neanderthal men. Even more than the gift itself, it is the thought and planning behind it. I know that they must have carried these things all the way from the States to send them to me, and it is that thought and effort that really touches me.
I'm outside the barracks, in the cool January night air of Baghdad. I'm smoking a Mocha Chocolate cigarette, and it is delicious. Lip-smacking delicious. An EOD team blows up an IED just outside the perimeter, and even though the word has been passed around ten minutes ago, half of the FOB runs for the bunkers when the sharp KA-WWWRAP thunders through the camp.
Not me. Life is good, and sometimes you have to savor it, no matter what is blowing up around you.
Now, if I can just find my wife. Has anyone seen her? Tall, slim, brunette? Deep, dark eyes that you can lose yourself in forever? Anyone?
God, I need to go on RnR....