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Thursday, March 21, 2013

1000 Word Challenge

This is an exercise in response to the blog challenge. These are the rules:

Flash Fiction Challenge: Ten Words Will Give You Five

Last week’s challenge: “They Fight Crime
I’m going to a random word generator.
*does that*
There. It has chosen ten random words.
Those ten words are:
  1. Library
  2. Ethereal
  3. Dolphin
  4. Replay
  5. Undertaker
  6. Storm
  7. Envelope
  8. Cube
  9. Chisel
  10. Satellite
You will choose five of those words.
You will include those five aspects — not just as words but as actual components of the story — in your 1000-word flash fiction this week. As always: post at your blog or online space, then link back here so we can all read it. You’ve got a week. Due by Friday the 29th, noon EST.
Pick words. Write story. Go.

I chose:
Library, Ethereal, Replay, Storm, Envelope, and Satellite.

Here is what I got:

It doesn’t seem to smell bad. At least, not how I imagined it would
smell. They warned me that the city would smell like feces and burning
tires, but to be fair, it has only been like that for one afternoon. I
guess we will see when summer comes.

I put the book back on the shelf. It is interesting to see what people
will read when their choices are theoretically limited. Hard copy
books are still a *thing*, I guess. I have 3500 books on a tablet, but
I still love the feel of paper, the awareness of how far I have to go,
the thickness, the smell, and most of all: the disposability.

I look at the shelves of books and wonder how each of them got here. At
home you have two kinds of libraries: public ones where books are
ordered based on a use algorithm, or more likely, a best-seller or
reference list; and private ones, shaped by the interests and
coincidences of a person or family’s life. Books that speak to them or
mean something tend to stay, books given to you by your crazy Aunt
Martha about crocheting cat legwarmers or whatever find their way into
donation bins or sold to a used bookstore for a few pennies.

But here, there is something else, some unspoken and immaterial force
that brings these books to their shelves. Nothing is thrown away,
because someone might be interested or desperate enough to read it.

Books find their way here, to be re-read and occasionally abandoned
because someone thought they should be here. Some family member sent
it to their loved one deployed overseas, thinking they would enjoy it.
Some soldier ordered it from home, found in the trash, or traded from
a friend.

A library at a deployed site overseas is like no other library. It is
like a patchwork of care, desperation, chaos and desire. It is not
built from professional or personal love like other libraries, but by
familial love and chance.

I pull a random tome down and look at it. It has obviously been read a
dozen or more times. Stuffed in packs, crammed between the seats of an
MRAP, held under a lunch tray on the way to the table, and of course,
entertained many an hour sitting on the water-conservation crapper.

This one is an interesting find; it is one of those technology books
like Time-Life used to put out. The cover has various tech, and I see
the section on telecommunications has been earmarked several times.
Satellites are of particular interest to the folks out here in no
man’s land. The modern army is utterly dependent on eyes-in-the-sky
and it is more than just the information they provide. It provides
them with a sense of security, a modern-day JHWH, looking down at
them. Soldiers know that if they are lost, these mechanical guardians
can find them by heat, by tracker, and by radiation. That sense of
security is similar to the ethereal force that binds this library. Both provide
chaotic mixtures of unknown eyes and unknown intent, all
coming together to make the soldier feel warm, and safe.

I take my find out of the MWR and smile, no check-out, no
Dewey-Decimal system, no sentinel to make sure the book makes it back
to its assigned place. These libraries are not bound by order, they
are bound by the chaos deployed life brings. This book may not make it
back, but another one will. It doesn’t matter that no one knows
exactly what is here, because that will change on a daily basis. The
bonding agent of this library, like the one between satellites and
soldiers, like the one between men who have fought and bled with each
other, it all just plays over and over for the people here.

As I walk outside, the smell has changed. It is sharp, cool, and
overhead the sky is darkening. Heavy drops of rain begin to fall as I
make my way back to my hooch. I have my treasure, and it will see me
through the pounding torrents outside. I find myself hesitating. If I
were back in the states, I would taken this book and use it to cover my
head from the water. But here, this book means something more. In a
way, protecting this book is protecting the sanity of myself and
everyone who comes after. In the states, being rained on was an
annoyance, here, it is almost to be expected. Shielding myself from
minor natural phenomena seems, I don’t know, ironic. Here I am, in a
war zone, and I am worried about a few drops of rain. Less than a mile
from where I stand guys are sitting in muddy holes and eating cold
pre-packaged meals. The least I could do is just suck it up.

Especially when the alternative is for one of our few precious books
could be damaged.

I tuck it under my jacket and walk quickly to my room. Carefully, I
pull it out and look at it. A few drops of water have hit it and
warped the cover. In the states, it would be ruined and tossed away.

Here, it is still whole, still readable, and still valuable. I lay
down on my bunk and flip it open. There are sections on all sorts of
information technology: cameras, radios, mics, and I get to the
section on satellites. On the last page of the story a small envelope
falls into my lap.

It is sealed, stamped, and addressed to a woman in the states.
Geraldine Thomas, 675 Primrose Lane, Albequerque NM. I flip the small
package over and over in my hands, and then I remember: Sgt Thomas was
one of the supply guys who didn’t come back from a movement ten days
ago. I thank God that I didn’t let the book suffer in the downpour. It
was guarding something precious. But then, all of these books do.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

(Not Quite) The Odyssey: 21FEB2013

And so my adventure begins. I arrived in Indiana during what New Yorkers would call “flurries”, Coloradoans would call “dusting” and what New Mexicans would call “The Apocalypse.” In other words, snow on the ground and snow falling out of the sky, no sight of the sun, etc. It was cold, bitter, and windy, but I had two good jackets that worked together, so I didn’t mind. In fact, I spent a lot of time walking around in the snowy wind (mostly to get things done), and it didn’t bother me. Thank you Colorado… otherwise this Phoenix/Hawaii boy might have had a tougher time coping. After a few days the snow abated and turned to muck. Not mud, that would be okay. Muck…. Slushy, dirty, sandy, messy goo that seeps into your pores and turns your feet into squishy messes. Luckily I had good boots and socks, but man, I preferred the snow.

                As for processing out, it was relatively painless. On the first day (Sunday) they gave us all a list of things we absolutely had to have done by Wednesday including online trainings (I had done those early), medical requirements (more on that later), dental (I had done that the week before I left - Thank You Painted Skies Dental!), Vision (more on that), and hearing (I had done an advanced screening just two days prior to leaving).  We also had to collect 57 pounds of gear to take with us (armor, environmental gear, and what I can only assume is a small invisible anvil – based on the weight of the bag).
                So it was an exercise in paperwork that started with the distinct impression that you were screwed and through careful bureaucracy eventually gets you to the point where you are pretty confident that you will make it outside of the country.  They have the system there down pretty well, all things considered. I say this as someone who had very few issues to resolve before deploying. Asking around with some of the other people, they had less than stellar experiences. It really boiled down to three possibilities: You had everything you needed (no one fell into this category), you had a problem they knew how to fix (95% of people fell into this category), or you had a problem that required special considerations or actions on the part of the people at the camp (and if that was you, you were screwed).  I was in the middle group.
                Prior to leaving, I had taken a list of labs I needed to my doctor, a form for them to fill out, and left them with about half a liter of my blood for testing. They didn’t fill out the form, they did only half the labs, and their documentation was a mess. It didn’t help that they were moving offices and I was in a hurry, but when I got to Atterbury, it was a mess. Not to mention I seem to have lost my shot records. So over the course of the week I gave the “Deployment Medicine” clinic (more on that later) another quart of my blood and they happily replaced it with every disease known to man. Luckily, I had no serious side effects - the only shot I had a reaction to was the anthrax shot, which swelled up and itched but had no serious problems.
                Eventually I had it all done, including a new physical, and was able to get on with my other needs. I will admit I don’t know what vision requirements there are for deployment. I can see just fine, but I was ‘tested’ this week and it seems to have no bearing on my actual ability. I am not even sure if the lady wrote down my results. Oh well, I guess I am okay. I had a brief scare with my hearing tests in NM, as the machine they used during my (useless) physical said that I was deaf. I had to make an appointment with an audiologist, who did every test known to man and afterward said “For someone who has worked with the military and done band promotion, your hearing is excellent!” That’s good to know.
                One of the interesting things about the process was the aforementioned ”Deployment Medicine” specialists that live in town outside the Camp. They overcharge, but are very efficient and clearly have a “fly by night” atmosphere. I have to admit that when I found out my medical records were screwed, I could have called my doctor and tried to get it resolved, but I decided to just use the local services and throw money at the problem until it went away. Seven hundred dollars later I was cleared, so I have nothing to complain about, really.

                Schedule-wise, I tend to wake up early anyway, so being late for things was nigh impossible. I had finished a lot of what I needed by Tuesday (including retaking an online training), so I had some spare time.  In fact, because I don’t sleep much, it has served me well. I have caught announcements I would have missed, been at places early for special privileges, and generally been very thankful that oversleeping is not one of my issues. I am sure the topic of my sleep habits will come up again (and again).

                The last thing for me to get used to was food. The food was okay, falling between a cafeteria and Denny’s in terms of quality. That wasn’t the weird part. Back home, I could spend money to get food whenever I wanted it. Here in the military areas, they give away the food (if you have the proper letter authorizing it), but only during very restricted hours. It’s an interesting trade off.  There have been opportunities for buying fast food, but I in general don’t want to buy food when food is free (too many years on college campuses). The side effect of this structured schedule is that I tend to eat more, and I tend to eat when I don’t really want to, because the next opportunity may be awhile (and it is free). I will have to work hard to regulate my intake.

                We did a few other “preparations”, including a neat “virtual gun range” which was closer to the real thing than an arcade game, but still nothing like firing a weapon. I did okay (19 out of 25 in the bullseye, only one missed the target and I think that was my first shot), but what was most compelling was watching other people shoot. The former military folks didn’t like the simulator, so did about as good as I did. It was the civilians who had the strangest reactions. One civilian was offended that she was “being trained to kill” and I was dumbfounded that; a- she thought a simulator was training her to kill; and b- she had a problem with killing but was going to work for the DoD. My issue, I suppose, is that she seemed to have a moral objection to guns, the central technology of the people with whom she would be working. That is like agreeing to work in a kitchen and hating fire. I assured her that after she missed the *range* (not the target, the entire screen) with all but one of her shots that she need not worry about killing anyone (at least on purpose).

                I have spent a long time thinking about my philosophy on guns. Personally, I do not find them interesting or ‘fun’ for more than a moment or two. I have concerns about the aggression and masculinity tied up in the act. I worry that being able to kill at a distance with so little effort has severe psychological effects on a person. That being said, firearms are the central technology of the military and it is my responsibility to stay comfortable, familiar, and competent at their use and care for as long as I work in this field. I understand their appeal, and the training that goes into using them and I have a deep respect for that. My choice not carry one is a privilege, earned by those who carry them for me. With that in mind, I am making an effort to stay qualified, use weapons whenever possible, and maintain a cognitive distance between “how would I use a gun back home?” and “what role do guns play where I am?” I get in my share of gun control debates, but none of them apply to the context of war, within which I am currently embroiled.
                One of my gripes working with contractors (and a very few military folks) is that when something has to be done, everyone stands around hoping other people will volunteer first. I was a little late to formally volunteer for baggage detail (a must if you ever plan to do this), but at various points things had to be done by cooperation (such as loading and unloading baggage, passing along gear, etc) and thanks to a certain unmentioned paternal figure, when something needs to be done I tend to wait about ten seconds before I just say “F-it!” and volunteer. A lot of these contractors said things like “I am not being paid to help.” And “I am too old to be lugging other people’s gear.” And I could do nothing but just shake my head. I am an overweight middle aged guy who spent three years in a cubicle and thinks for a living. If I can pitch bags, so can you Mr. Former-military-in-his-late-forties-with-obvious-masculinity-issues. Seriously, you are on the clock anyway. If you can make things go a little smoother by fudging the boundaries of your job description, maybe you should buck up and lend a hand.

                My last day in Indiana was spent sitting around the airport waiting for our chartered international flight. I had bought a nice rib eye steak the night before (they have a nice racket going on the Camp, where they offer it every Thursday for departing people) and spent the day doing what the Army does best: Hurry up and wait!

Up Next: Flights, Kuwait, and Afghanistan