Scrappy observed my exhaustion as I stagger into operations. I was soaked in sweat, my face red from sunburn. Fender was the same. I had an ice-cold unopened can Pepsi in my hand rolling it across my face to provide some relief.
“Stood down eh?” Scrappy stated.
“Yup, but what a rush.” I exhaled. “We rolled in on the target and set up a pattern ready to lay down lead on that compound but there was nothing. Didn’t see anyone. Slayer Three-five said all the firing stopped so we picketed for another 20 minutes before Shamus got back.” I continued to explain. “They either just laid low or possibly escaped down the green zone through some other compounds and wadis.”
“Did you hear the I-comm chatter?” Scrappy added.
He rewound the text-prompter and it showed.
Time XX:XX I-comm chatter FOB HOWZIE. “Top hat gone, Infidels in. Do we attack?”
Time XX:XX. I-comm chatter FOB HOWZIE. Second voice answered. “No. Wait and leave.”
“Top Hat?” I asked.
“Taliban calls them that because of the EO-IR ball on top. Looks like a top-hat.” Scrappy answered frankly.
“Oh yah..Huh.” It seemed an appropriate description.
“Otherwise pretty mundane day today?” he smirked.
“Mundane?” My eyes grew big as I responded with exclamation: “If steering around artillery blowin’ the crap out of something near Chalgour, doing overwotch of an IED on Highway One, scaring dickers off walls near FOBS while the Chinook gets skinned by a loader all followed up with a live-TIC in HOWZIE is mundane, then yes.”
I could see him smirking; knowing his sarcasm caught me.
“…And we are gonna go through allot of flares by the end of the tour. But I’m starting to get used to them firing off.” I summed.
He glared at my apparent sense of complacency toward the missile warning system. “Well, you guys keep doing your counter drills…you never know when one is going to be real.” He paused from the lecture. “Dickers were young I heard? Well, get use to it because that’s how the Taliban operate. They could be paying them or blackmailing them to report knowing we wont shoot them. But keep reporting this to Intel, that could be a mask for a bigger threat!”
Fender nodded. We left the room and proceeded to Int to report the activity.
“Hey Steve, check this out!” Scrappy called me back to his personal ready room a few doors down the hall.
“Right behind ya boss.” I reversed course to follow not knowing what he had to say.
Scrappy rounded the corner to his private office and opened his arms directing the attention to his bunk.
“A cott? You gonna sleep here?” I exclaimed. “No, no! You’ll burn out dude!”
He disagreed shaking his head. “Look, I figure I will be at work for the next 7,368 hours.” The number penned onto a white board above his desk. It was below a lined-out number 7,380 indicating a recent re-calculation. “I really don’t have any extra time for the transit to my bunk on the other side of KAF. This job will be non-stop and I am always on call. I plan on staying here. If I’m not busy, I’d rather bang off a half hour sleep then be sitting in a van driving to the other side…I knew it would be like this…so if you need me, I’ll be here.” Scrappy concluded flopping onto his bed, crossing his shins with his hands cupped behind his head. “Mind getting the light on the way out?” He smiled and closed his eyes.
“Your call buddy.” I raised my brow shaking my head and pressed his light out. “I’m heading over to the other side. I heard the rest of the team has arrived. Copilots and gunners.”
“Yup, they are just completing their weapons verifications and will be heading over to the tents around 7 p.m.” Scrappy informed with his eyes still closed. “They were a bit shocked as they walked in earlier during all the hell breaking loose around here. TIC, broken Chinook…And some duty officer in Ottawa told the SAMEO that the dents on the Chinook did not have any technical guidance in the repair manual so they had to ground it in RAMROD.”
“Your kidding! There were dickers getting ready for something out there.” I stated.
“Yup, I know and the SAMEO lost it on the phone with some paper-pushing, midnight desk commando in Ottawa. It was quite a show.” Scrappy sarcastically smiled as he rolled onto his side. “Anyway, it would be nice for you guys to meet your crew at the tent.” He waved his hand for me to leave so he could have a power-snooze.
“Roger that. See ya later.” I stated sarcastically. I closed the door then followed Fender and Big C out of the building to the Squadron bus stop.
“So how was your flight?” I asked.
“Sounds about the same as yours but we went north. Same shit different pile.” C answered with his level smile. “I got a grip on scheduling as well. I’ll be merging into that role full time tomorrow.” He further advised. He would be responsible for making sure all the missions were staffed daily and that maintenance had a pilot-crew available to help fix and test the aircraft.
A bus was available outside operations. It ran every hour across the base; staffed by a 430 driver restless to leave back for Canada the next day. The driver also picked up meals from the kitchen for ground and flight crews that worked through and missed the D-FAC meal hours.
“Well, it looks like the driver is having difficulties again with the kitchen staff, already five minutes behind.” Fender stated.
“No problem guys.” Big C sarcastically stated with his flat straight grin, “Not like we have anything else to do.”
“I could be in the Timmy’s line-up though.” I retorted thinking out loud.
Three of us stood by the bus stop, listening to the fighter jets land and take off every few minutes. Helicopters continued into evening and night missions. Apaches, chinooks, merlins, kiowas and various versions of Russian helicopters all adding to the continue buzz of activity on KAF. About twenty-five minutes later, the bus came around the corner briskly, the driver shaking his head in as he stopped. A tidal wave of dust followed.
“Regard ca, colis!” the driver exclaimed shaking a piece of paper in air as he opened the bus door. He threw the paper back on the dash and quickly got out to pick up the food buckets. “Da fuckin’ Police militaire gave me un ticket for to speed, tabernac! The kitchen, it was late again”. He continued frantically explaining in his Quebec accent. “I try to make up time to get za food ici; ensuite tabernac, ze police – zey pull me over…I was only going 50! That is not speeding, I tell zem. I says I have to get za food to za crews…” His arms and hands gesturing as he vented his frustration. “I tolz them zat 40 is just a suggestion, but zis? Zis is an emergency and I go 50! But zey do not agree and gives me zis ticket…colis.” He lights up a cigarette, and takes a large calming inhale. “I be right back and take you after I deliver zis food…and on zis, my last day, tabernac!” He walked away with the food buckets in his arms cursing under his breath with his cigarette hanging from his lips.
All three of us stood speechless, looking at each other trying not to say anything that would further ignite his anger; then we silently got on the bus and waited.
At the Tents:
I went into my corner space, which I had decorated with a carpet and make-shift lumber shelving. It was positioned for watching CDs on my computer at three feet away. My shipping boxes had arrived with extra clothes. I turned those boxes into leg stands upon which I placed a two foot wide piece of splintered plywood; alas a desk. An outgoing 430 Squadron pilot gave me a spinning office chair, which occupied the remaining floor space. Since it spun 360 degrees, it gave full access to my door, bed, shelves and desk. However, it was necessary to sit in the chair and spin to move in and out of my bedroom.
I hopped in my chair and spun towards my bed, got out and removed my sweaty tactical clothing hanging it on a line over my bed. I also hung towels and other clothes over the bed, which then completely engulfed all the space from 4 feet up. I had to stay at sitting level in order to see anything. If I stood up, my head entered a field of crisscrossed laundry lines. Despite the cramped quarters, it was becoming a comfortable sanctuary. Next-door, Fender was strumming quietly, to his “Hotel California” tune:
“On a dark desert highway,
fuckin hot wind in the air,
warm smell of the poo-pond,
stinging my nostril hair”
I giggled as I whispered: “Nice lick dude – don’t quit your day job!”
“Ha ha – whad ya mean? – I’m awesome!” he replied continuing to strum.
The door opened shining some light over my wall. “Hey guys, copilots are here.” Big C announced.
“Right on.” I replied. Despite just being together for training intensely during the past nine months, it felt like a family home-coming, but ironically in Afghanistan.
Irish and Arnie walked in. They were exhausted and did not look impressed. They forced a smile and gave each captain the alpha-male man hug then stopped in shock of the confined space. Irish was an intelligent and technically apt individual but preferred things to be of 1st world standard.
“You guys got in a TIC today huh?” Arnie asked excitedly.
“Not really.” Fender responded.
“We got called in, all jacked up up, briefed it and rolled in.” I added.
“But nada.” Fender sang.
“What?” Irish asked perplexed.
“As soon as we set up on the target area, they broke contact and hid or ran. I-comm chatter had them pausing for another day….so we hung around until Shamus got back and came home.“ I briefed.
“So cool. Awesome.” Arnie whispered.
I nodded. “Yup, a little exciting though.” I looked over to Irish who was listening intently as I pointed him down the narrow hall.
“Irish, good to see you man. You’re space is two down on the left, under the internet repeater wires!” I excitedly welcomed him. I figured this is how Grumpy felt when he showed me around.
“Thanks?” He responded hesitantly. His space did not even have a functioning light bulb. His bed was tipped up sideways with the mattress leaning against it. There was some broken plywood furniture thrown aside in the space. It looked like a garbage room.
“Hmmm…” I patted him on the shoulder. “Mine was like that a few days ago. It’ll be fine, we’ll get some light bulbs from the American PX, sweep the floor, and put a rug down …it’ll be like home in no time.” I tried to be encouraging, yet in a sarcastic manner.
He was unimpressed.
Arnie voice blurted from down the tent hall, “10 months!!! You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me!” he then giggled quickly seeing the potential as he scouted other rooms. I knew it was bad, but I was already over my shock and able to relive it through their reaction. Arnie grunted then flexed his proud ‘Schwarzenegger’ physique and moved a massive crate clearing space for his gear. “Aaarrghh!” He exerted, “Perfect…Actually, I think it’s gonna be just fine.” He retracted as he looked at the worse condition of Irish’s.
Hollywood was at the other end. He was a tall and always cheery young aviator. As a charismatic storyteller, ‘Hollywood’ only seems fitting as a pseudonym. He was always trying to attain hardship stories to share with his old infantry buddies for credibility. He felt he was losing credibility since he went to the Air force. “This is perfect!” He hollered as he gathered evidence with his camera.
He leaned over Irish’s shoulder. “Oh dude! Your room really sucks!” He paused, “…which is totally awesome!” He continued clicking away with his camera. Excitedly, he went down the hall inspecting everyone’s room.
Arnie smiled. “Okay, this is pretty cool!” he stated rhetorically. “But what the hell is that stench?” He had discovered the flora of the poo-pond.
Fender smiled while peeking out from his studio. “I’ll tell you what it is.” He started strumming the same tune again:
“On a dark desert highway,
fuckin hot wind in the air,
warm smell of the poo-pond,
stinging my nostril hair”
Arnie chuckled peaking into Fender’s space.
“Well, you asked.” I smiled at Fender’s lyrical response.
Fender laughed from behind the canvass wall as he rehearsed his song once again. Big C smiled and explained about the sewage plant a few hundred meters away.
Irish continued complaining. “This dust is burning my eyes out!…Oh shit, what the fuck have I got myself into?…I have a dust headache.”
“They have Claritin at the PX. Already on it buddy.” I barked down the hall giving a suggestion to relieve the pain.
The door at the other end of the tent opened interrupting the banter with Grumpy cheerfully entering.
“Welcome home!” He was so happy to see the guys, but also rejoicing in experiencing their initial discomfort. Having all the co-pilots around was like a piece of home coming to this God-forsaken place. KAF just became a little more bearable. However they were not as excited; and still sleep-fucked.
“How’d the weapons shoot go guys?” Grumpy asked openly.
“That was crazy! Everyone was falling asleep while shooting.” Hollywood answered laughing. “I thought I was gonna experience my first casualty of war.”
“It was kinda dangerous!” Irish stated matter of factly. “I’m not sure it was thought out properly.”
“How many do-overs did you get?” Grumpy acknowledged smiling looking at Arnie who appeared sleepy.
“Ha ha.” Arnie forced. “But how’d you guess?”
“I think we had five on our validation.” Grumpy answered looking around from someone to nod in agreement. Big C dropped his chin twice in agreement. “Yup.”
“I think we had 5 or 6 demonstrating the Mexican unload (unloading by shooting all the rounds until empty but without authority).” Arnie answered. “No one got killed so I guess that’s good.”
“The trucks are arriving with your shit guys. Let’s help them unpack and get their quarters all established. Big day tomorrow!” Big C coached with his senior wisdom.
Everyone filed into the dust ridden street forming an assembly line behind a 2-ton flatbed truck with dozens of kit bags and barrack boxes. Grumpy jumped on back of the truck and started reading names as he tossed a box to the next in line.
As the evening went on, I lay on my bed listening to the banter of the new guys carve out a home for the year to come. Someone found a light bulb for Irish so he was less disgruntled and Hollywood kept checking other rooms for ideas and taking pictures for his journals. He was excited and chuckling, finding humour in the collective discomfort. Shorty was another co-pilot. He lived across the hall and quiet; yet he had the driest sense of humour of us. He was across the hallway from me and liked his solo-reflective time. Irish continued to mumble about little bothersome things and asked other guys to help him; which they did. This was all under the musical umbrella of Fender lightly strumming tunes from songs he knew. Often repeating chords and words until he got it right before moving on to the next bar. Every ten minutes a pair of jet planes would drown out all sound as they shook the entire camp followed by Hollywood stating “That’s awesome!” And Shortly occasionally blurting facts out of no-where like: “Apparently the dust we are breathing is 30% camel shit.” This would be honoured with group silence for a few moments while everyone digested the fact. Then a snort-giggle of acknowledgment before returning to the murmur of business.
I slowly drifted to sleep in the comforting noise of my friends.
“RWOKIT ATTAK, RWOKIT ATTAK, RWOKITT ATTAK”.
I rose up immediately. Heard the rocket attack warning and listened. I thought about rolling onto the floor as I heard all the new guys saying “Get down – get down!! 2 minutes on the floor and then the bunker!” However, my new chair was in the way.
I listened for an impact explosion. I didn’t hear any. I smiled at the commotion of the other guys scuffling to find their helmets and weapons. Then I turned my light off and closed my eyes. I heard the guys bitching about trying to find a place to lay down on the floor.
“Fuck I have no space.”
“My ass is in the air.”
“Turn on a light. What do we next again?”
“2 minutes then the bunker.”
“Oh right…did you hear an explosion?”
Two minutes later they shuffled by going to the shelter.
The thought of that being 58 for the American I met calmed me. So this time, I hid in silence falling back to sleep.