Date: 5/18/2003 Subject: Waning months of the war 2
I miss seeing the three-toed footprints of great blue herons hunting on my parents’ beach on the shores of the Sassafras in Fall, the copper green cupola at the end of our dock standing vigilant as a lone sentry, stationed over the water, which in July was a traffic jam of grand yachts and now, in my mind’s eye, is patrolled by the odd bass fisherman or oysterman or osprey.
I think of Vermont apple orchards or the maple coated brilliance of Norman Rockwell’s home in the Berkshire mountains, with the orgasm of color, and the soft, earthy smell of rotting leaves and peat, and wet moss. I think of blazing fireplaces on cold mornings, where banshees roam the forest, to be themselves frightened away by the advent of the cardinal’s song, or late into the evening while a soft Autumn rain falls, and a Shepherd’s pie browns in the oven, filling the house with the melting aroma and making my mouth water even here and now. Soon, the Chesapeake will begin to harvest its blue crabs in earnest, and were I there,
I would be lying on my stomach on the dock, watching my crab lines for signs of activity. In Maryland, I believe fully in the Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer mentality of letting life wash over you, and being at peace with the surrounding moment. Twain understood that the greatness of our nation is built in the infinite small fragments of happiness which each of us finds in our own backyard, be it Texas or Montana, Massachusetts or Oregon or anywhere in between.
So I would lie on my belly, soaking in a welcome sun, full in the knowledge that I can escape the heat in the singular act of slipping like an oiled gladiator off the wood planking into the calm waters below. I would have a cold beer in arms reach, and I could sleepily watch boats slip by, content in the coming fullness of summer, and the sweet departing kiss of Spring, never truly caring if a crab ever sunk its claws into the chunk of meat drifting in the silt on the river’s bottom. Perhaps it is the sense of freedom which makes these images so poignant to me.
These are a collage of happy times when I did not wear the uniform, and when I did not have a blood soaked seriousness draped over my every waking moment. Perhaps it is the constancy of the drabness, perhaps it is the permanence of the uniform. I often sleep in it and it fills my eyes every day. Since there are no weekends, no time off, no privacy, no escape, we live and br eathe the mission and there is no respite. Watch closely, I’m going to coin a term here. Sensory under-load, (not terribly creative, but what the hell.)
The generators pump out a continuous bombardment of white noise, which one simply pushes to the back of the mind, to throb like a mild headache. All colors are muted, either by the very fact of natural camouflage in this environment, the pervasive coating of powdery dust or the drab military coloration. The birds and animals are all a dull brown, and so is the little vegetation which exists. All smell is tempered by the dust as well, coating the sinuses and saturating the air, there are so few of the chemical stimuli which normally abound. Except for the occasional acrid, choking smoke of the burning latrines. The sense of touch is equally muffled by the layering of filth, and taste, well what’s the point of tasting. It is like being color blind, and thus the distractions of color and movement and all of the rapture of the senses in their glory, are not to be found.
The Cash commander once said that on redeployment, he could smell the freshly cut grass while still a hundred feet off the runway as his plane landed in Kentucky during the last war. Perhaps much of that is psychological, but I can only imagine the overload which will occur upon reintegration into the brilliant world which has we have partially forgotten. In the interim, Vanessa Mae’s violin enchants me with the rhythms of home, ironically caressing me with Vivaldi’s four seasons.
I’ve started a countdown. An extraordinarily optimistic thing to do, and not necessarily the most positive method of passing the time. 44 days remaining until I am wheels up, and can watch the desert melt away as the entirety of the Mediterranean engulfs my future. 44 days! 13 remaining in this month, 30 in the next and 1 in the month after that.
Last night I stood on the edge of a crater in the skeletal remains of a fruit orchard which stands starkly in the full moon’s bloom as a graveyard. I was walking the pup, Tallil, whom I have successfully gotten pardoned by a general, and whom will be an American citizen before too long. He pranced around the outer rim of the depression, clambering up the debris of earth and shattered wood, sniffing at the uncovered strata. I can only imagine the power of the bomb which had so ripped into the earth’s flesh, and shattered the landscape.
All about my feet are sea-shells which had been brought to the surface by the blast, and I wonder if they are fossils. The Euphrates is a good twenty miles away, but perhaps in earlier times, prior to the damming of the twin rivers near Karbala, this whole region might have been verdant and fertile. Perhaps fish had swum at my phantasmal feet a century prior, and resplendent kingfishers and egrets had waded into the shallows to trap wayward minnows. The lilies and water flora may have been teeming with freshwater snails, whose eternal form I was now admiring, in this dustbowl, on the very edge of devastation. Another possibility is of massive floods during the rainy season, or the shifting of the rivers path over the millennia, or even possibly, that these are the ghostly reminder of our evolutionary youth, and that these literal shells once were alive in the cretaceous, thriving on the sea bed, while mosasaurs and teradactyls ruled this fragment of the ever-changing landmass.
The night was bright, and the moon cast deep silhouettes over the copse of decimate d trees, creating a patchwork of shadow play on the desert floor. I crouched on the rim, staring ahead into the night, while Tallil dove into the yawning earthen wound, scrambling back up its crumbling sides. Towards An Nasariyah, the sky was in turmoil, satin black clouds rolled towards me, choking out the stars as they engulfed the vista. Occasionally lightning strikes within the roiling mass would collapse darkness into day.
A month ago, I might have mistook these for bombardment of the city, but now such nightmarish fireworks were a jagged memory, brought sometimes back into consciousness by the visuals. The crater, the bombed out husks of former tanks in the wheat fields, the projectile’s path through a wall, gaping maws in once proud buildings. The flashes were the heralds, and I knew the night would be grim and hard to bear. There was no wind, and everything was quiet, not even the roar of thunder to accompany the lightning, just the silent, black and white sign s of the gathering storm.
I returned to the fragile tent with the pup, sequestering him safely within a makeshift den, created from the conjunction of a dozen different boxes which once carried medical supplies. He nestled in alongside the gathering of toys which soldiers had given as offerings, much like wise men to a baby messiah. He must have sensed the storm, instinctive to his birthright of a wild dog of the Iraqi desert, but it was as inevitable as the next breath, and he buried himself into a corner and prepared to sleep through the onslaught. I took my cue from him and stripped my rancid clothing off. Sweat still waterfalled off my brow and down my back, and the dead air did nothing to cool me. I lay down under my mosquito netting and fell asleep.
In a dream, I remember the tempest striking and rattling the sides of my canvas cage, blowing the hot breath of the desert over my nakedness. It raged outside and dust poured in through every crack, settling like snow over the scenery. No rain fell, and the only sound was the ranting of the sandstorm trying to level everything in its path, indiscriminate in its destruction. In my dream, I battled the storm, leaping up and raging against its incorporeal nature, declaring myself alive, as I flailed against the wind with my fists.
I awoke exhausted, and were it not for thick carpeting of dust which covered every inch of me and my tent, I might have believed that I had not slept at all. But the evidence was all around me, literally blanketing me in a uniform dull grayness. Was I alive? Sometimes it seems as if we are all condemned to live in this repeating limbo. Perhaps that was why I had begun to count down the numbers, as if to bring myself back into a regularity consistent with the world outside of the desert sameness.
It is Sunday, I believe, however, it is difficult to be sure, and nothing distinguishes this day from any other. It is Sunday. Yes. I am certain, and the number is eighteen. I have read it in a calendar, so it is sure to be true. The eighteenth day of a Spring month. May. A month at home of cool mornings and flowers and the beginnings of the vegetables, it is a comfortable month. Not so here. The temperature is one of our methods of measurement, more so than time. This period of wakefulness, between slumber and sleep was marked by the degree of one hundred and nineteen. The previous such period, arbitrarily called a “day”, was a paltry one hundred and fourteen. I almost had to put on a sweater. Tomorrow, I will predict, will hit somewhere between one hundred and ten and three hundred degrees Kelvin. See if I’m not right. This month is marked by the end of the cool nights, the end of the fighting, and the beginning of the Hospital packing itself up to leave. So it also augurs a loss of friendly faces, a quiet impatience in my soldiers and a jealousy of our compatriots who are permitted to leave early.
Standing in our makeshift shower, I note that my ribs are showing. I’ve regained some of the muscle tone to my chest and stomach, things which had perished to the horrors of socializing in a Western Louisiana military post. Two dreadful words: Mc and Donalds. In actuality, I’ve toned up significantly, dropping almost fifteen pounds of unneeded flesh, and without any increase in exercise. Unless sweating is considered exercise in which case I should go Pro; and in retrospect, after this experience, it deserves to be an Olympic sport. Certainly there’s been no rush to the dinner table each night. Sweating seems to take one’s appetite away. I can’t really remember the last time that I was genuinely hungry and pushed to eat for some reason other that simply understanding the basic need and fulfilling the drive of trillions of Kreb cycles churning away. It purely becomes a rote activity, almost out of boredom. As Paul Newman says in Cool Hand Luke during the egg-eating contest when Drag asks him why he couldn’t have said thirty-five or thirty-nine instead of fifty eggs, “It’ll be something to do” he responds with that perfect Newman smile.
Back in the world, I considered myself a gourmet. With France in my bloodline, it was almost a prerequisite, but genes compounded with a mother who knows how to cook well, and a father with a demanding pallet, made it compulsory to understand and enjoy food. Americans oft times simply choke down a meal, like a pelican gorging on fish, pick up, lubricate throat and swallow, don’t bother to chew, chewing takes too much time out of the work day. We are proud of our ability to work longer and better than most other cultures on the planet, but to achieve that dubious accomplishment, we seem to have jettisoned certain pleasures, one of which is the most primal.
It’s not that Americans don’t eat well, although, arguably, they don’t. Nor is it a lack of access to fine cuisine, for we’ve collected the very best which the world has to offer. It’s more simply, the frame of mind which is lacking. Eating for the sake of the food. Years and years ago, I spent a summer in Madrid, living with the Viola family. The parents were both Argentinian dentists, whose practice was on the ground floor of their lovely home, and I spent my days learning to play squash with their son, Roberto, discussing photography and trying to accustom myself to the tradition of the siesta.
On weekends, the Viola’s would pack us all up and we would motor on up to the mountains which surrounded Spain’s capital city. Navacerrada was the name of the small town to which we would flee, and it will forever remain for me a symbol of living and eating for the purpose of pleasure. Each day, around ten, while Roberto and I lounged by the pool, splashing his sister or played tennis on their private court, a small baccanal would begin to unfold. By the pool was a grape vine covered terrace. The flagstones beneath our feet were formerly from a roman ruin, and the old wooden pillars which supported the trellis were misshapen by time and the elements. A long wooden table was surrounded by metal chairs, whose floral steel filigree was covered in flaking white paint. The table bore witness to thousands upon thousands of feasts and teas, of spilt wine and lovers’ whispers, of angered knife gouges and the ebullience of all of those forgotten meals. It had seen children grow and season after season of the grape vines going through their yearly ritual of change. It had likely seen an impassioned conception or two following a wine induced midnight swim, and may have even served as the coital surface. It had tasted bloods and sauces and liquors and juices and an eternal, flowing ambrosia of their combined flavors.
The table was centered under the grapes, and the far wall was the remnant of a rubble pile which had been salvaged into a wood-burning grill. Like an altar, fixed into the wall, it began to glow at ten in the morning and continued to feed us from its furnace until well into the afternoon. Being Arge ntines by birth and by nature, the Violas had an undying passion and rather intimate relationship with meat. A massive paella, seemingly having been served by Poseidon himself followed a cool gazpacho, and the tomato and cilantro’s bite was muted by the sauce drowned rice and the frolicking of crustacea in the depths of the Spanish national dish. Then came the parade of meats. Salcichas, and massive steaks, bleeding as the knife cut through the succulent muscle fibers, roasted chicken with dates, steamed before us, merguez and red snapper, mackerel and trout. Wine poured constantly, and we drank and ate, occasionally leaning back in ardent appreciation for the meal, and hoping to make room in our already stretched bellies for one more morsel of melting fish flesh, sweet fowl, or mouth watering spiced meats. These meals would stretch for hours, and course after course would fill the day, conversation flowed as readily, and pleasure was inherent in the whole performance.
Pan and Dionysus would have been proud. Perhaps it was that summer in Spain which was my initiation, that combined with manifest destiny, but whatever the source, I took exquisite pride in preparing a meal. Bachelorhood is a time of either starving, eating poorly, or doing for yourself, and as such, I dove into the gratification of cooking. Nigella Lawson’s books and the naked chef series sit well stained with olive oil and wine on my bookshelves, nestled in with the New York Times cookbook and dozens of regional cuisines. This is not to say that I necessarily know what I’m doing, but I seemed to have stumbled onto an ability to mix flavors and to be able to tell an endive from a platypus.
Anyway, I’ve gotten few complaints (which may be due to overly polite friends, but the military doesn’t tend to breed that sort, so I’ll take the compliments where I can.) Western Louisiana was something of a preparatory period for Iraq, a paucity of quality ingredients, and a monotonous sameness to the bill of fare, especially if one wanted something which had not had all of its identity scorched away in a deep fryer. Certainly a five hour drive places me in one of the United States’ most famous culinary cities, and I imagine that New Orleans is not the only city in the mosquito state to have amazing food, but the region surrounding Fort Polk seems to have escaped the State’s genetic heritage and instead had adopted the Mississippi mentality that fried catfish was the perfect meal eight days a week. As a result, and in a somewhat rebellious spite I decided to give neighboring Texas my business. On a regular basis, I would drive the six hours to San Antonio on weekends to see friends and shop for food staples. Hunks of crumbling parmesan, stinky Corsican goat cheeses, melting French soft cheeses, wine by the crate from South Africa, Australia, France and Chile.
Coffee is an absolute. There is simply no substituting crap for good coffee. The beans I carefully store, sensitive to temperature and humidity, as if they were top quality Cuban cigars. So thirty bucks for a pound of Kenyan, Hawaiian or Antigua Guatemalan? Throw it in the cart, I’ll take five. To these I would add couscous and polenta, capers and dozens of varieties of olives, spices galore, red and yellow peppers and pounds of fresh garlic. My kingdom for some fresh garlic! My mouth waters at the thought. I’ll spend huge sums on these perishable items without flinching, knowing full well that I might be feeding a guest who would be just as pleased with a Mega fried McCatfish burger or something along those lines. But in the space of a few months, all of that has been overturned.
Food is an interesting concept here. Seemingly having unseated cleanliness and sex as the things we most miss. We dream about it, speak of it, lust after it, but rarely see it. The MREs (Meal ready to eat) are actually very palatable, and I can’t really complain. Each sack is filled with enough calories to fill a body builder’s energy needs: fortified peanut butter or a cheese spread, crackers and candy, flavored drinks, a main entrée such as chicken cavatelli, vegetarian burrito, thai chicken or shrimp jambalaya as well as a side dish such as mashed potatoes or buttered noodles. And they’re quite edible, it just that packaged meals taste, well, packaged, and no matter how much Tabasco sauce one adds (a bottle comes with each meal, regardless of the menu, quite the military contract they must have!) it still tastes the same.
To make matters worse, I’ve taken to eating about four of the twenty-four options on a regular basis. Cheese tortellini, pasta with vegetables, chicken strips with salsa and country captain chicken (sort of a curry). I jettison the extras, salvage the Sanka instant coffee (dear God to what depths I’ve sunk!), the Chicklets gum, the spoon and the moist toilette. Then I set about tearing the food out of its titanium shells and scooping the mush out with a spoon. I don’t even bother heating the meals anymore, although a handy little heating element is included. I think perhaps I lost my taste buds in the early stages of the war. Maybe they were shot off during the convoy into Iraq. Perchance I’m due a Purple Heart! Or as Sulley likes to say whenever he bangs his shin or scrapes his arm, a Purple Spleen. Much of the blame needs to land on the heat, which usually fluctuates around one hundred and fifteen around mealtime. It’s not easy to build up an appetite while you are trying to keep from spontaneously combusting. The Army does provide better, and hot meals are prepared at the neighboring hospital Mobile Kitchen Trailer, but even this food is prepackaged, and I simply couldn’t be bothered to wait in line for an hour for the variety. Eating has noticeably and painfully lost its pleasure, and I feel the void.
Hopefully, I’ll start my re-integration into the real world within a month and a half. Hope this finds all of you well.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire