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Monday, November 1, 2010

Chapter 1: Down a Desert Road

Here it is, Day 1.  We have humvees, we have machine guns, and we have setting.  Is Jonathan tough enough here?  Or is he a total wimp?  Will he become the hero of the story, or should he be a quick round of hors d'hourves?  Read on and decide!
Chapter 1: Down a Desert Road
Iraq, 2005

            He was the FNG, the fuckin’ new guy, so he got the machine gun.  Twenty-four pounds unloaded, eight-hundred rounds a minute, and the damn thing didn’t fit between his knees and the door.  So he had to drape it over himself as they rolled down the hot desert road, windows up, the AC blasting as hard as it could but never blasting enough.
            The real machine gun, of course, was up top, on the turret.  A turret, they called the thing – because it was round, with a rolling block of armor for three sides and then the fifty-cal pointing forward.  Grimes was up there – his usual spot – and every so often he would kick the butt of Jonathan’s gun as hard as he could just for shits and giggles.  Sometimes he liked pouring down hot Gatorade, too.  He’d do that with the lemon-lime flavor, just set a bottle of it out on the hard armor plate to soak in the heat from the sun, and then pour it down on Jonathan’s sleeve in yellow squirts.  “Feels like I’m pissing on you, don’t it?” he’d ask whenever they stopped for long enough to talk.  And Jonathan would reach over to his sleeve and brush at the dried remnants of salt and sugar left by the sports drink.  That’s all that remained – the pale dust reminiscent of moisture.
            There were five of them in the truck.  Sometimes the terp sat up front because his knees hurt too much if he sat crammed in the back, but Sergeant Torres got pissed every time the lieutenant pulled that.  “You sit up front, sir,” she told him.  “That’s the TC spot, sir.  It’s called Troop Commander for a reason.”
            Of course, a squad leader wasn’t supposed to be chewing out the lieutenant – he was in charge of the whole platoon, after all – but the lieutenant would just shrug it off.  He’d shift around under his body armor, ask if anyone else got headaches from wearing the stuff all day.  Then he’d go on about how he wasn’t drinking anything because he didn’t want to have to get out and piss in front of everyone every time they stopped the trucks, and then Sergeant Torres would relax.  Assuming “relax” was the right word for it.  “I’m not dropping my pants on the side of the road,” she’d say.
            And so it went.  Jonathan had known what to expect.  Grimes was a son of a bitch – everyone knew it.  He was the guy who stripped down to his underwear anytime someone whispered the words “drug test” or “urine sample.”  And he’d sit up top in the humvee as they rolled along, never saying a word about the thick film of dust caked over his helmet and his Oakley’s.  As far as Jonathan could tell, he just sat up there smiling away and drinking his Gatorade.  Not that Jonathan could tell for sure.  From the back seat, all he got was a side-view of Grimes’s right knee.  Sometimes, when they were rolling through the narrow lanes of a small town, Grimes would sit low in the turret, parking his butt in the narrow canvas brace looping down under the turret.  Depending on which way he had to turn, his butt would be in Jonathan’s face or the interpreter’s.  Or the lieutenant’s, when the man got tired of sitting up front and decided to take a nap in the back seat.  And maybe that was the real reason Torres chewed him out – it was because everyone knew the lieutenant wasn’t even trying anymore.  It was like someone had reached into the man and turned off whatever switch it was that made people afraid.  Now he just slept all the time.  And Jonathan didn’t know if that was normal for the man, or if it was a new thing.  He hadn’t been with unit long enough to get a straight answer.
            And so they drove.  Torres at the wheel – always Torres.  It was because officers weren’t supposed to drive, and she didn’t trust either Jonathan or Grimes to man the wheel instead.  That’s what she said, at any rate.  Jonathan suspected it had more to do with her never wanting to sit in the back seat.  He wondered if it was Grimes she didn’t trust, or sitting back-seat in general.  If the lieutenant wasn’t there, he figured she would have take the TC spot in a heartbeat.  Troop commander – that’s what they called it, the TC spot.  The driver had the wheel, the TC had the radio, and the gunner up top had a view of the sun and the desert and all the endless sky in between.  So new guy and the terp sat in back – that, Jonathan figured, was simple physics.  Assuming the army could be broken down into something as simple as physics.
            The drive continued this way.  It wasn’t like driving cross-country back home, where all the roads had rest stops and gas stations, where a potty break was a good enough reason to stop.  Here they just kept going.  Peering up around the lieutenant’s head, Jonathan could get some view of the truck ahead of them.  Sometimes an Iraqi would try passing them, weaving between the humvees while dancing over the centerline.  Every so often there’d be the report of Higgins firing off his shotgun.  He was the gunner two trucks up, and he hated Iraqis.  He hated them almost as much as he hated marines and airmen.  Back in the hooch, over cards, he’d talk about how his wife had smuggled him some non-regulation birdshot in a Pringles can in his first care package.  He said he kept a few rounds of it looped into his bandoleer “just for those dumb fucks who try to drive their Hyundai’s in and around my truck.”  Apparently, the blast of bird pellets was enough to crack glass and chip paint, but it didn’t usually hurt anyone.  “Unless they’re dumb enough to drive with their arms and hands out the window,” he’d say.  “Course they shouldn’t be doing that.  Shouldn’t be letting their kids do that, neither.”
            Sometimes, Jonathan wondered how could fit in with guys like Grimes and Higgins.  He’d already given up on Sergeant Torres – as far as he could tell, she didn’t like anyone.  There were days he’d spend an hour hanging out with the interpreter, but even then there was only so much he could take.  It wasn’t that they were dull or boring or anything – it’s just that he didn’t fit.  And when they asked why he had joined the army, he still had no answer.  What could he say?  That he had always wanted to carry a gun?  That terrorists flying planes into buildings seemed like as good a reason as any to pull on the pants and pick up gun?  Of course he couldn’t – they’d see right through him.  They’d see the kid who dropped cross country because of math class – as if running forever in a straight line was a real sport to begin with.
            Most days he wondered if he would have it in him to pull the trigger when the time came.  Or maybe it wasn’t the fear of actually pulling the trigger, but of learning to aim at the same time.  He already knew he’d pull the trigger.  He’d spent too many hours on firing ranges not to at least pull the trigger.  But he saw men like Grimes and Higgins, and he knew they were the kind of men who took bullets to the chest, picked themselves up off the ground, and then pushed ahead to fuck up the motherfuckers who had knocked them down.  But Jonathan wasn’t like that.  He didn’t have that kind of “warrior ethos.”  Back in Basic, when the drill sergeants had been shouting for everyone to show off their “war face,” he’d been faking it.  He’d been imitating zombies from Dawn of the Dead, doing his best to look as terrifying as possible.  If not for the drill sergeants, he probably would have laughed.
            Iraq, though, was different.  It had to be.  And he didn’t think it would be at all like Basic Training.  He didn’t believe that working together to climb some wall would be enough to keep them all alive.  He was afraid it would be more like paintball, back in Texas, back before he was Airborne and All the Way.  He just remembered looking up over the block of straw, taking aim with the paint ball gun, and taking a shot.  And of course he missed – it was a paint ball, not a bullet.  There was no rifling in the barrel, there were no zeroed sight-posts.  His buddies, though, they didn’t aim.  They just fired.  And they kept firing until they hit something.  For Jonathan, it had been a long day of splashes of red and yellow right into the face mask.  Except that out here, it wasn’t paint that tore a man’s head from his body.
            “We should be getting close, sir,” Torres called out.  Jonathan looked her way.  He was always afraid she would be talking to him just when he wasn’t listening.  Instead she was trying to wake the lieutenant.  When the man didn’t stir, she gave one glance back Jonathan’s way.  “Can you just butt-stroke him on the head?”
            Butt-stroke him?  In the humvee?  With a machine gun?  Jonathan had the image from the bayonet course, of raising an imitation M-16 up high over his head, and then bringing down the stock as hard as he could onto a Goodyear tire painted to resemble some vaguely Asian expression of Communist rage.  From here in the back seat, he barely had room to move his arms, let alone bring down a gun on a man’s head.  So he reached between the front seat and the door panel and gently shook the lieutenant’s shoulder.  “Sir,” he said, though he knew his voice was too soft to be heard over the engine.  “Sir!” he tried, but that did no good, either.  It wasn’t until Torres reached across the truck and decked him in the face with her half-empty water bottle that the platoon leader jolted awake.
            Torres turned her eyes back to the road.  “You might as well tell them we’re coming,” she said.  “So they don’t think we’re insurgents or something.”
            “Are we almost there?”
            “How the hell would I know?  You’re the one with the GPS, sir.”

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