June 08, 2007
Name: SPC Freeman
Posting date: 6/8/07
Stationed in: Iraq
Milblog url: calmbeforethesand.blogspot.com
Our motor pool is a barren expanse of gravel and sand on the northern perimeter of our FOB. It borders the flightline of the local airbase, and is big enough to accomodate at least thirty football fields. It's easy to get lost amidst the rows of vehicles and equipment; especially if you work at it.
It's an unusual contrast: the motor pool and flightline themselves are desolate and sandy, marked only by patches of sage and scrub, while outside the wire, the lush fields and palm groves stretch northward to the horizon. There are times when, finding myself alone, I have difficulty accepting what I see. Were this place not such a miserable wasteland, gutted by violence and poverty, I can actually see it being quite a lovely place to live. This thought is especially frequent lately, as we balance precariously between the last of the winter monsoons and the sweltering summer dry season.
Today is one of those days that toes the line. It's a bright day, though mild, with a blue sky marbled by dark cumulus formations threatening rain. A faint breeze blows in from the north, and beyond the wire farmers are busy with the first of the sprouting crops. I'm out back in a remote corner of the motor pool, operating a forklift. We're supposed to be helping one of the Line platoons prepare for a future mission, but I've managed to abscond with one of the big front-end loaders. While Oz and Elder and Mik are busy slaving away with members of Second, I'm armed with a long list of to-do's from SSG Mueller (currently on leave), and so I maneuver deftly amongst hulks of trashed equipment and neatly stacked lumber, grateful for the rare chance to get away and, even for a minute, just be alone.
With my level of schooling and solitary nature, people in my unit tend to mischaracterize me as being averse to an honest day's labor. I'm not. I just prefer to work alone. Truthfully, the best job I ever had was one I took during the summer after my freshman year of college. I worked as a groundskeeper for the local Water Authority back home. It was a lot of grunt labor -- maintenance, equipment repair, landscaping -- but it was good work, and I was given a long leash. I got some of my best thinking done while perched on the back of a John Deere lawn tractor. Like Recon, and unlike being part of The Line, that job afforded me some blessed solitude, all while getting my hands dirty in the outdoors. Such is the situation I find myself in today.
I start off by attempting to unstrap and offload some large flatracks, which need to be re-palletized for Second as part of their upcoming job. I have to move large pieces of construction material, as well as some tool crates, before I can pick up the flatracks themselves and move them down to where Second is staging their equipment. Considering that my forklift is classified to over 10,000 pounds, the work goes quickly. I unstrap the loads and then sort them out by component, all in the space of roughly an hour.
By a little later in the afternoon, a few crates of spare lumber are all that remain, and this being my first time on this machine, I decide that this would be a perfect opportunity to attempt a little delicate work with the forks. I offload first one, then another crate with delicate precision, taking care not to let the uneven terrain make me damage my parcels. This whole process takes maybe ten minutes, after which a single box is all that remains for the last flatrack. It's a large crate, stacked high with spare wood, and with gentle care I maneuver my forks in under the box and then lift slowly. I'm growing more confident with this machine by the minute, and so I move quickly to drop off the crate and thus finish with this particular task.
Things go smoothly, until I round a sharp corner near the toolshed.
My leadership knows me for having a lead foot, and whether it's a Humvee, a Gator, or a 10,000-pound forklift, my tendency to punch the gas is the same. I yank the wheel into a hard left turn and, unaccustomed as I am to the center-pivot steering on my loader, find myself unprepared for the sudden jerking and bouncing that rattles my forks. I pull back to compensate, but it's too late. The crate jounces harshly, and a good two hundred pounds of lumber goes flying. I have no choice but to drive over most of it as I offload the now-empty crate. After that's done, I shut off the fork and look behind me -- two-by-fours and four-by-fours all over. Nice work, I find myself thinking, and as I doff my Kevlar and climb weapon-in-hand down the ladder, I find my good mood marred ever so slightly by this turn of events.
"Fuck," I say, to nobody in particular.
My wife likes to chide me for letting minor annoyances get the better of my morale. She's right, of course. I don't know why I let myself get so irritated by trifling inconveniences. The task of hauling the lumber, piece by piece, to the appropriate stacks takes me only about ten minutes, and after getting the whole mess cleaned up, I decide to sit down on the now-empty flatrack and have a cigarette. I lay my weapon down beside me and take out a Camel from my pack, and after lighting up and taking my first drag, I stick my smoke between my lips and interlock my fingers, resting my arms upon my drawn-up knees. I roll my neck from side-to-side, savoring the relief of popping joints, and take in my surroundings.
Several minutes pass. I find myself not so much smoking as simply puffing away idly at the cigarette, much as one might do with a pipe or fine cigar. Before I know it, a long stick of ash dangles uneasily from the end of my smoke, and I extinguish the butt and drop it into a cargo pocket on my ACU's. I let out a small sigh, and tilt my chin upward, taking a deep breath.
Here in this remote corner of the motor pool I'm alone for almost a half-mile in every direction. The flight line is quiet, for the moment, and up above, the clouds are racing south across a perfect cerulean sky. A mild breeze caresses my neck, and on its currents come the smells of sweet grass and growing wheat. It's the sort of breeze that seems to mute out background noise, while making no noise itself. I find myself quietly whispering the lyrics to a favorite song -- "Spring Haze" by Tori Amos -- and for a moment I close my eyes and give in to bittersweet sentiment.
It's a beautiful day in an ugly, ugly place, and for a moment I miss the gentle peace of my days sitting out on the Port Austin breakwall. This day is at least comparable to any one of those in fairness, and yet no matter how much time passes, be it in Germany or Iraq, I never get over being landlocked.
And still, I breathe deeply anyway, savoring the rare moment. This is what my life boils down to these days: Small moments of beauty, a thousand small Nirvanas, stolen wherever I can find them. And I am grateful for every one.
I have to be grateful. There is no other choice.