Weathering the Storms

Weathering the Storms

Weathering the Storms 1920 1204 Joanna Grant

Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, January 2012

“Fuckin’ sand’s workin’ for the Taliban,” the Air Force guy behind the PAX terminal counter grumbled. “Ain’t nobody gettin’ nowhere outta here today, especially you.”

He spoke the truth, though I couldn’t help but clutch my pearls a bit at how blunt he was being about it.

“This here sandstorm’s shut down everything and everyone. Country-wide. Breaking records. It could be hours, it could be days.”

It had already been almost a week.

I’d already broken my own record for numbers of days and nights spent camped out in the PAX terminal. And no end in sight.

You see, there was a system in place there at Bagram, one governing who got priority seating on any flights going out from that main Afghan hub to all the other bases, FOBS, COPS, Camps, and CIA sites dotted all over the hostile landscape, from Jalalabad by the Pakistani border to Mazr-al-Sharif up in the north to Kandahar and Leatherneck down in Helmand Province. The big C-17s plied pretty regular routes from Dubai into the AOR and from one major base to the other. Smaller bases might get a little Stol flight every week and a half. No matter the frequency of scheduled flights to your chosen destination, R&R/emergency leave folks and VIPs got first dibs. Then the active duty got slotted in, and so on and so forth down to us civilian contractors, who were the very last to get seated unless we could prove we were somehow mission critical.

I was not mission critical. Had never been, never would be.

All in all, I reflected, life seemed pretty determined to school me in how unimportant I actually was. Lest I should ever forget.

So, yes, not mission critical. Hence, I was staying put, as the guy behind the counter had remarked so ungallantly. But then again, so was everybody else, what with the storm raging from mountaintop to old dry river basin and back again like something out of the Old Testament. For my sins, I found myself thinking. That old British expression.

There were signs plastered up all over the terminal exhorting us to clean up after ourselves; to refrain from touching any of the private areas demarcated on the representative stick figures with large red X’s; to say something if we saw something; to keep our belongings policed up, as our mothers did not work here. And no sleeping on the floor.

We’d all held up pretty well for the first day or two after the storm hit. We’d kept our belongings with us at all times. We’d lugged our backpacks with us as we stood outside the terminal in the small graveled courtyard separating the PAX building from the Pat Tillman Memorial USO with its free popcorn and its neverending loop of Forrest Gump on the big TV, oohing and aahhhing in the damp, gusty cold at the sandstorm itself—all that fine Afghan moon dust stirred up and frothed with sleet, snow, hail and fog till it looked like all of Bagram swirled in eerie ectoplasm.

Things started falling apart a little after that.

It began innocently enough. Someone took off his boots to change his socks. Someone else unzipped his backpack to ferret out a change of underwear, his socks and T-shirts and shaving stuff and a teddy bear from his kid and all manner of other intimate personal effects fanning out around him till he emerged victorious, holding up the sought-after pair of boxer briefs. A couple of Army guys laid out a poncho and started up a game of dominoes.

After that, it was Welcome to Hooverville. As the gale howled outside and the cold grit insinuated itself under the doors and through cracks in the windows, we started making ourselves comfortable with a vengeance. Boots came off, and toes that had festered in fungal purgatories for forty-eight hours made their break for freedom. Jackets came off and turned into pillows as those who had sleeping bags unrolled them. For those of us who didn’t, the BX was just a short walk up Disney Avenue to the left. No, not Walt Disney. Everybody thought that their first time at BAF, myself included, till I noticed the memorial plaque bolted to a large rock near the turnoff to the old South Korean-staffed hospital. This Disney was some poor kid who got killed up here during the early days of the war, back when the privates and airmen in the PAX terminal were still in junior high. Disney. Oh, how his drill sergeant and battle buddies must have ridden him on account of that last name—while he was still alive.

I wondered about Disney as I trudged up his eponymous avenue to the BX, where I could pick up a hand towel and some toothpaste and some baby wipes for the sponge bath that was rapidly becoming a necessity. I wondered if Disney had been in the service before 9/11, just looking for a little direction and some college money before he found himself caught up in the War on Terror. Or was he one of that first crop who joined afterwards, when American flags sprouted up everywhere and people kept saying Now more than ever, now more than ever, like some kind of magic spell? That lot was pushing towards retirement, now, those of them that were still alive. I wondered how many of them had found what they were looking for out here—glory? Escape? A short cut to the middle class, my student Matthew had called the military. That’s why I joined up. I guess I’d done something similar. I wondered if it would work. There was a lot of time for wondering out here. At least there was free food to go with it.

I picked up a three-pack of clean underwear while I was in the BX, as well as my towel and toothpaste and some incredibly cheap lapis lazuli from one of the market stalls that had cropped up between the BX and the checkpoint to Little Poland, where their Special Forces had their camp. Engrossed as I was in my careful step, step to avoid slipping in the muddy, dirty slush, as wrapped up in the here and now of my moments as I was, I couldn’t help but feel the oddness of this shabby two-by-four-, sandbag-, trailer-, and barbed-wire world, its air of improvisation cheek by jowl with its feeling of heavy inevitability, as if it had been here forever, somehow, and would always be here, just as it was now, a damp, festering nest of true believers. Grifters. And me.

I made it back to the PAX terminal with my supplies and thanked the guy who’d watched my stuff (total flout-ation of PAX terminal rule Seven Subset Three). The picnic blankets, sleeping bags, and styrofoam take-out trays from the DFAC had begun to metastasize into something like a cross between a slumber party and a favela. The Air Force guy behind the counter had even given up on shooting us all dirty looks for breaking his rules. Every so often, he’d get on the PA and relay the latest news.

“There’s NOTHING out there. Nothing. At. All. Absolutely nothing.”

I turned to my stuff-watching buddy.

“He is still talking about the flights, right?”

The guy grinned. Oh, he was a sweetheart. He couldn’t have possibly been a day over nineteen.

“I sure hope so,” he replied.

As he strolled off towards the male toilets, I unzipped the plastic bag holding the mink blanket I’d picked up at the BX. I don’t know why we all called them mink; they were a thick, shaggy synthetic fleece, not animal pelt. Mine had a pattern of roses on it. I unfurled my mink, eased out of my boots, and rolled myself up like a burrito right there on the dusty floor with my head pillowed on my backpack and my jacket over my face to blot out the fluorescent lights.

I unfurled my mink, I thought drowsily to myself. Now there’s a sentence I never thought would come out of my mouth.

And then I slept some of the best, soundest sleep of my insomnia-ridden, red-eyed life.

When I woke up, all crusty-eyed and not entirely sure where I was, there was a woman next to me. We smiled at each other as I rubbed the grit out of my eyes and shook out my mink, the fine layer of dust coating it fluffing back into the air. The woman and I both watched the SSGT across from us dumping fresh foot powder into his boots and readjusting his balls. Apparently, standards had slipped a little bit more while I was asleep.

“Would you like me to watch your stuff while you go clean up?” the woman asked.

“Thank you so much,” I replied, touched. “I’ll be right back.”

I trekked towards the female toilet. Thank the deployment gods for us getting stuck at an Air Force base with its free WiFi. The Army made you pay for it. Some people were FaceTiming with folks back home. Every little screen was another window into someone’s kitchen, someone’s bedroom, into another life, into another set of lives knit together by blood and marriage and love and kinship, never mind our strange, dusty setting, our chilly limbo. It…felt good, somehow, to think of it. To think of them.

In the female toilet, I took my place in a line of women performing their various ablutions. One girl had her boots off and her pants hiked up, running each foot in turn under the faucet. I tried not to look at that too closely. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, looking in the mirror at someone with a pale face, slightly bloodshot eyes, hair matted and kinked up from sleeping on the floor and too much dry shampoo. Even after hot water and soap, I still looked chalky. Dusty. I could have sworn that my outlines had faded, had smudged, that I was, somehow, disappearing.

Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. That is an impossibility.

But I couldn’t help thinking that that might not be such a bad thing.

“They called it the House of Dust,” I’d told my students back in the last school term. “That’s what a lot of Ancient Near Eastern cultures like the Babylonians conceived of as the afterlife. You see that belief reflected in our own Old Testament, too, when they talk about Sheol, the dim, dusty underground chamber we all just sort of sit in for eternity, waiting for…nothing. Maybe. Though they say in some of the poems surviving from ancient times that if you stayed there long enough, you started to change.”

“Like how?” one of my students had asked.

“You’d…grow feathers,” I replied.

“Huh,” the student replied.

Growing feathers, I thought to myself, running my fingers through my frizzy, flyaway hair. Feathers, indeed.

I headed back to the woman and my own belongings through the throngs of the stranded. One guy was cleaning his fingernails with what looked like a small machete. In another flout-ation of the Air Force guy’s rules, litter had proliferated. Coffee cups, water bottles, and soda cans were everywhere, and periodically you’d hear a gurgling shriek when someone mistook a spit cup for a Pepsi or vice versa.

“Thanks again,” I said to the woman when I got back, and I meant it. Lord knew that enough bad things happened out here in this sad, seething, dangerous country, but, amongst ourselves, in our own wooly and somewhat smelly communities, thieving was pretty rare. Some people might have said different, but, as far as I saw downrange, stealing was rare and retaliation swift for anyone who got caught. You had to go back to The World to see more of that kind of thing. On the other hand, it was less likely that you’d find your hometown garbage collectors rummaging through your trash for return address labels so that they could mail pipe bombs to your grandma.

“So, what do you do out here?” the woman asked me as I resettled myself. I knew she’d ask me sooner or later, just like she knew I’d eventually ask her the same question. You see, women were rare creatures out there in the field, even active duty women, though their numbers kept going up as more and more combat-related jobs opened up to them. But civilian women? Not so much. Civilian women over thirty? Not quite unicorns, but you got the idea. I’d gotten used to people asking me in a kind of wonderment what I was doing out there, if I had a family, how many kids did I have, what did my husband think of me being out here, all that. I’d gotten used to hardly ever seeing anybody who looked like me, so, when I did, we’d both jump.

“I work at the Education Centers, teaching and generally helping out,” I told her. “What do you do?”

“I’m a contractor and I work in IT. Former active duty. Divorced.”

I guess that she’d heard her share of questions, too.

We fell into comfortable conversation as the guy across from us bent over to dredge something out of the nether reaches of his pack, his undershirt riding up and showing off a swath of fishbelly-white skin and the top part of his ass.

“How long are you out here for?” I asked her.

“About a year,” she replied. “How about you?”

“About a year,” I echoed, and we nodded at each other sagely. If Contracting had been a country, and sometimes it felt like it was, then “The Gambler” would have been our national anthem and “About a year” would have been the motto printed on all our money. Back in Kuwait, I’d met old-timers who’d been swearing they maybe had one more year left in them since back in the First Gulf War.

“Would you like to see a picture of my daughter?” the woman asked.

“Sure,” I replied, and then I was peering down at the woman’s phone with its wallpaper image of a breathless, happy girl, a younger version of the woman across from me. The girl in the photo proudly displayed the ring on her left hand while leaning back into the embrace of the beaming young man standing behind her.

“What a lovely couple!” I exclaimed, and I meant it—all the homespun, cheerfully cliched things we say when we see wedding photos or snaps of grandchildren.

“She’s my only daughter,” the woman said, “and I want everything to be just like she wants it on her big day. That’s pretty much what this contract’s about for me—the wedding.”

So, that’s what got her out here, I thought to myself as we debated the pros and cons of different color schemes and the merits of buffets versus sit-down reception banquets. Everybody out here chased a dream or two; that’s why we’d gotten enlisted or re-upped or signed down for that “one more year.” Kids’ weddings; gender confirmation surgeries; freedom from student loan debts—I’d met people out here who’d been after them all.

I glanced around the PAX terminal, where we’d all been cooped up together for so long that we’d started to evolve our own weather patterns and religious cosmologies, not to mention upper respiratory infections from the cold and all the fine particles in the air. What all were we running from, what all were we chasing. Our alpha and omega, world without end.

“Congratulations to you and your daughter!” I gushed.

And I really meant it. I also didn’t want her to ask me why I was there. Maybe I’d tell her later, if she asked, but maybe just not right now. Mine threw me out in the snow, I could have said. He was supposed to help me and keep me safe. But he’d had other plans. He said he didn’t love me. That he didn’t want to take care of me. That he should have told me to get lost long ago.

Why on earth would I tell her that? Besides, it felt good, it really did, to let the war outside go, just for a little bit, and to conjure up something else instead, something happy, peaceful, domestic. Why ruin the moment?

So we talked flowers, and favors, and page boys and flower girls, both of us quite taken by the yarn we were spinning. I’d gotten my knitting out of my bag, and, as I shaped the sleeve I was finishing, I stitched up a pretty little future for these young people I didn’t even know.

But wait—here was another woman, drawn to our little encampment in the midst of this sea of testosterone.

“Hey,” she said, “have you heard anything more about the flights yet?”

We hadn’t. The Air Force guy behind the counter had retreated into his private office and closed the blinds so he didn’t have to look at us anymore.

The mother of the bride was giving the new arrival assurances that we’d watch her stuff for her if she went to the female toilet.

“Oh, good,” the new arrival said. “I’m oozing a bit.”

I was counting my way through a tricky patch of decreases on my sleeve, so it took a second for that to register.

I looked up in time to notice that the new arrival had what looked like train tracks running all around the circumference of her face—hairline to temple to cheekbone to jaw to chin and all the way back up again. Stitches.

“It’s over there. The female toilet,” I murmured, carefully not staring at the red train tracks, some of which did indeed look a little weepy. Facelift.

And not one of those subtle kinds with the little threads they put under your face skin, either. This looked like they’d cut her whole face off, trimmed up the saggy edges with some kitchen shears, and then sewed the whole thing back on.

The mother of the bride and I watched the facelift woman make her way across the crowded terminal, her progress apparent from the rippling of startled double takes and quickly averted eyes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We weren’t gawking at her because we were assholes, or because we disapproved of plastic surgery or this woman doing what she wanted to do to live life her way. I hadn’t even been in the business all that long and I’d seen the ads in the Stars and Stripes for cosmetic dentists, orthodontists, and the purveyors of boob lifts, implants, reductions, tummy tucks, you name it, they had it, English speakers guaranteed. You see, we were scofflaws there in the terminal with our sleeping bags and our takeout trays of chicken wings. She was a rulebreaker.

“They told us no open wounds of any kind in the AOR or they’d send us home. Firing offense,” I told the mother of the bride. And then I told her the story Stacey had told me who’d heard it from Lisa about that new field rep of ours who’d got her tits done out in South Korea just before she went downrange. When the new field rep and her new tits went for the Humvee rollover training, the seat belt and the bulletproof vest ripped her all open again and she got infected and died.

“Holy shit,” the mother of the bride breathed. “How stupid can you get?”

We watched the door to the female toilet close behind her. I guess she was going to mop up her ooze.

“You reckon we could get one?” I asked.

“You think we could get a military discount?” she replied.

****

It really seemed like the storm would last forever, that we would live out the rest of our days wrapped in our minks on the dusty floor, just like in the ancient poems. But, of course, it didn’t, and we didn’t.

After three or so more days, the sandstorm finally quieted enough to where the relieved Air Force guy behind the counter started handing out seating assignments again. Of course, by then an enormous backlog of R&R/emergency leave and VIPs as well as active duty had built up, so we contractors were there till the bitter end. And it was bitter, it really was. We’d become something together, us hobos there in the PAX terminal, as we waited and waited for the skies to clear. Like animals, we’d huddled for warmth and comfort, and, like animals, that touch was all we needed. Well, that and a lot of coffee and chicken wings. And baby wipes.

With some regret, we policed up our bags once more, and helped the Air Force guys and the cleaning crew tidy up the bathrooms and pick up all the wadded paper towels that hadn’t made it into the trash cans. We got our boots back on and got our papers and ID badges ready for inspection.

The mother of the bride was the first of us women to get a place, and off she went, waving over her shoulder. Then the facelift lady got her seat. She’d pretty much stopped oozing by then. I hope she did okay, wherever she was going. I hope she didn’t get into trouble, or get sent home, or get ripped all open again in a rollover and get infected and die.

As I finally got into my tiny seat on the little fixed-wing Stol aircraft that might just get me to FOB Shank if the wind currents bucking and yawing over the mountaintops of the Hindu Kush didn’t kill us all, I surreptitiously pulled out a pocket mirror from my bag and looked at my feathery hair and the bags under my eyes. With a fingertip, I stretched my face skin back like the facelift lady’s.

Don’t be an idiot, I remonstrated with myself. That kind of thing isn’t for the likes of you.

But…what if it was?

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!” chirped the pilot/purser/stewardess? of our flight to Shank. This guy obviously had no qualms or reservations about his life choices and decision-making skills. He was in his fucking element and he didn’t care who knew it.

“We have gotten the all clear but let me tell you all what’s what! Those air currents are churning up like my guts after two bowl of my grandpa’s favorite five-alarm chili! Do not be a hero! Take a barf bag! Take two! I guar-an-god-damn-tee it! Now it’s time for the safety brief! Fasten yer goddam seat belts and keep ‘em fastened if you wanna live! See y’all at Shank if we live to make it there!”

I took my barf bags and pulled my belt as tight as it would go. The three Jordanians up front scoffed at their barf bags and I swear one of them didn’t fasten his seat belt.

He got his comeuppance when we hit that first big downdraft. Our little plane bucked and waggled and dropped and plunged. It shook us like a cat does a mouse. The Jordanian guys were I think praying while one of them puked up something yellowish into his barf bag.

Sure, by the time Shank came into sight and we started our final descent, my fingernails had dug little red half-moons into the palms of my hands and I had my seat belt yanked so tight I could hardly feel the lower half of my body anymore, but the thought—or not even a thought—uppermost in my mind was something like

I LOVE THIS I LOVE THIS I LOVE THIS

and I admit I thought foul scorn of those Jordanians for their empty macho bluster, and that I had somehow done honorable service to my country and to Freedom by keeping a lock on my stomach. So, yes, then, maybe just one more year…

Header photograph © Mitch Marty.

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