Bunkers, Bombs and Billion-to-One Odds

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FOB Salerno, Afghanistan (April, 2008)

FOB life always gets more exciting once the light thickens.

Darkness brings the crickets and the rockets and the percussion of outgoing artillery. Pakistan-bound rounds rumble the ground and seek their turban’d targets in distant hills.

“We owe them violence,” the guns seem to say.

“They’ve loaned us death and we must re-pay.”

“Two IEDs, five KIAs, four legs severed, liters of blood lost: this week’s compensation. So we shoot back. We light up the night with murder and rain brutality down. We are politics by other means — lunatic scenes our specialty. You prick us and we will bleed, then we will aim, then we will force-feed you flames.”

I am no trigger puller myself. I am my brother’s keeper’s teacher. In the sentences of service between periods of pounding, I spread the word.

This week in “Intro to Shakespeare” it was Macbeth who carved his passage into our understanding. A bloody play for a bloody week. Till this week, I’d never thought to find out my blood type. But then sirens sounded during “Intro to Writing” and the blood drive for O+ was on. A couple students leapt from their desks and rushed their blood-filled bodies to the bank.

The next day I got tested: O+. Now I know.

I teach humanities to humans in a concrete building. That building just happens to sit next to a gravel run-way. That run-way just happens to supply the 101st Airborne in their fight against the Taliban — a fight that just happens to be happening tonight.

Outside my concrete classroom, across a pebbled yard some twenty feet away sits my own personal bunker. When the gods are gambling and rolling dice at night, I hide in my bunker and hope for the best. I hope that in the Kush foothills ten miles distant, a hardy mujahadeen aims his rusty mortar with too much care, giving his weapon one nudge too many.

One less caress by his dusty thumb and I’m on target. Then the bunkers and the blood banks and the billion-to-one odds are made redundant by physical laws, and my only hope becomes a microbreeze swirling in the sky.

But anticipating such misfortune only suits me in spurts. Most of the time I spend touching new thoughts into my keyboard and ignoring the helicopters and gunfire outside. It’s amazing the sense of security 18″ concrete walls give a man.

Several times a night, I forget that whole “grand struggle between good and evil” thing and instead disappear into the mundaneness of probability equations and skeptical philosophies. I picture the woman I love and, thanks to Skype and satellite internet, I talk to her and lose myself in her voice. By 3am I’m ready to bathe my sore labors in sleep: that “balm of hurt minds, chief nourisher in life’s feast.”

So I exit into night and traverse the starlit gravel between class and bedroom.

The lack of artificial light at night (for security reasons) allows the cream of the Milky Way to spill across the sky and split the heavens in two. I pause to behold the twinkling, and then continue toward my good night’s rest.

On one such dark commute last week, I had my first “incoming” experience. As mentioned above, our big “freedom” guns make regular targets of Pakistani crags, where medieval bearded men hide in cracks. These outgoing artillery rounds make a wholly different noise than the incoming rockets. The outgoing rounds let out a singular boom while the incoming ones preface their boom with a whistle. I hadn’t heard any whistles yet, only booms.

Picture it: a starry night, a crescent moon, random bird chirps, the sound of my footsteps. Then…..

“Whiiiiiiiiiistle…..”

Time stopped.

It was an orgiastic moment — like the moment you step off a cliff to jump into water. You pass a distinct point-of-no-return and must endure what comes next, come what may. A soldier had told me earlier that night that if you actually hear the whistle, “you’re probably fucked.” Hearing it means the rocket’s about to greet you with all its percussive force.

With this in mind, I heard the whistle and stopped. Then…..

( ( ( ( ( CRACK!!! ) ) ) ) )

A massive explosion!!

I flinched. Then paused. Then broke into a full sprint for my concrete bedroom. Fifteen seconds later the base-wide intercom was blaring sirens and:

THIS IS NOT A DRILL…. THIS IS NOT A DRILL….. ALL PERSONNEL TO BUNKERS…. ALL PERSONNEL TO BUNKERS…

It was my first real experience with Talibani rockets, and it just happened to occur during my nightly commute.

The next day I heard tales of twenty-foot craters and just-missed buildings. I was happy to have finally learned the difference between artillery and rocket sounds. The rocket’s “CRACK!” was completely different from the artillery’s “BOOM!” — and the sound of the whistle was chilling to the core.

It was different from what you hear in the movies — deeper, slower, off-key — like a wheezing death knell.