FOB Salerno, Afghanistan (July, 2008)
Here in the borderlands, here in the spaces between rock and sky, here on my island of liberalism — my lonely cay assailed by the fanaticism of bearded bigots — here I teach American soldiers how to write. Every day at the beginning of Writing 101 class, I pose a question to which the students must respond with impromptu paragraphs. One of my favorite questions to ask is: “What is the worst physical pain you’ve ever felt?”
The students have to write a story in response. They have to narrate the events leading up to their most painful moment and then describe the pain precisely enough to make the reader yelp. As you can imagine, I get a lot of good stories. I’ve heard everything from stubbed toes to racked nuts to childbirths to busted bones in high school football games. I also get a lot of war stories. Iraq comes up a lot. On Monday I heard a harrowing tale that’s sure to become classic.
Zane, the storyteller, is an NCO on his fifth deployment to the Middle East since 9/11. He’s a survivor. He has sneaked his way in and out of Iraq three times now. His response when I first asked him the pain question was that he couldn’t pick just one incident. He had too many.
“I’m from southern Alabama,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Back home, Zane lives on an island off the coast of Alabama where the deer and the moccasins play. He spends his free time running barefoot through snake-filled creeks and drowning bullsharks.
“You just throw a loop around the shark’s tail” he said. “Then drag it behind the boat till it’s dead. Water goes up gills and drowns it.”
When he’s not slaying sea monsters, Zane collects poisonous serpents. He told the class about an incident a few years back when he and his brother came across a five-foot water moccasin slithering through the brush. Without thinking, Zane swiped up the tail of the creature, expecting his brother to distract it from the front. But his brother was behind him. The snake recoiled toward Zane like a giant slinky and sunk two dripping fangs into his bare foot.
“It was like a dream,” he said. “There I was, holding this snake’s tail with two fists, yanking on it with all my might, and the damn thing wouldn’t let go of my foot…”
It sounded like something out of a Greek myth.
“But that didn’t hurt as bad as getting tangled in a swarm of jellyfish tentacles!” he added.
By the time Zane got around to reading his Iraq story, he had the whole class teetering on seat-edge. The story would have to be pretty good to outdo his tales of snake-wrestling and jellyfish-tangling. Zane didn’t disappoint.
One evening about halfway through his second tour in Iraq— his second “Babylonian captivity,” as he put it— Zane and his soldiers decided a celebration was in order. They’d lasted six months in the red zone and were halfway home. In their time outside the wire, they’d established contacts with all the important locals in the nearby communities— the ones who could supply them with life’s amenities, like imported beer. That night they aimed to make use of these contacts.
Zane made the arrangements. Before night patrol he filled a huge cooler with ice, crammed it into the back of the Humvee, and he and his soldiers set off into the dusty deathscape. The evening went by smoothly— as smoothly as evenings go when every inch of road can kill. Around sunset, the gunner let out a short spray of fire, but nothing came of it. Darkness approached.
With the beige air fading to gray, Zane checked his watch and saw that everything was on schedule. The beer-suppliers would meet them on route so there’d be no need to go out of the way. They were traveling east into the darkness, headlights on, rumbling along a dirt road next to a canal when… BOOM!!
The explosion lifted up the Humvee’s passenger side where Zane sat and sent it rolling over the driver’s side toward the canal. As the vehicle rolled, shrapnel shot up through the floor pan and zinged between the feet of the passengers. Zane felt a crunch as the Humvee landed on its roof and began scraping down the embankment toward the canal. Then he blacked out.
He was awoken by a chill on the back of his neck. Water! Ice cold water! It soaked his hair and numbed his neck. By the time he figured out where he was and what had happened, the water was rushing into his ears. His body was hanging upside down from his seatbelt, his head and neck pressed into the roof of the Humvee. Worse, the cabin seemed to be filling with water. The canal! he thought. They had slid into the canal!
Ever since he was a kid, Zane had been afraid of drowning. “Being buried alive and drowning,” he said, “those were my two biggest fears.”
Drowning seemed imminent inside the rolled Humvee. Frigid canal water seemed to be leaking in through the cracks in the doors and slowly filling the cabin. When the men inside realized they were about to die, they began screaming in panic and terror. They tugged at their seat belts and pushed up on their seats from below. They punched at the doors and elbowed the windows. It was no use. They were trapped.
The gunner was the only passenger who hadn’t been trapped in the rollover. Zane ordered him to get out. As the young man pried himself from under his seat and crawled through the crushed cabin, Zane made a promise to himself: when the time came, he’d take a deep breath of water and end it instantly. He wouldn’t suffer, he told himself. He’d end it all in one deep, liquid breath.
The frigid water crawled up his temples and toward his eyes, slowly, inexorably. It reached the corners of his eyes and then a voice called from outside. It was the soldier who’d escaped:
“It’s the cooler!” he said. “It’s the fucking cooler!”
The cooler? Zane thought. What cooler? Then it donned on him. Yes! The cooler! It was the cooler! The freezing water soaking his hair and creeping up his face was the melted ice from the cooler in the trunk. It had spilt when the Humvee flipped. He wasn’t going to drown! It was the cooler!
The students laughed as Zane finished reading. It was a good story. But there was one problem: I hadn’t asked for stories about near-death experiences. I wanted stories about pain. I wanted to know the worst physical pain Zane had felt.
“What about the pain?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said, remembering the question. “Well, the shrapnel from the IED blew through my foot and carved a big ole’ groove up my leg bone. I was bleeding all over. But I didn’t even notice. I was giddy. I was happy I wasn’t gonna drown!”
“But if you didn’t even notice,” I asked, “then how was it the worst pain you ever felt?”
“Well sir, I noticed pretty quick after I saw the blood. The pain set in heavy after that. It hurt like hell. And they still had to pry me from the vehicle!”
“Fair enough,” I said.
It was quite a tale. The class was impressed. I thanked him for sharing it and just as I was about to move on to the next soldier, another student chimed in with something we’d forgotten, something that was apparently on the mind of every sober soldier in the classroom.
“What about the beer?”