Friday, June 15, 2007

Somnium

A sudden jolt awakened me from a loose sleep. I opened my eyes and feel every bump on the turbulent ride. How long had I been out? It felt like hours, but I look at my watch. 5:30 in the morning. Shit. I look around to see who else is awake but don’t find any returned glances. Only our knees are touching, but I can feel the heat from the dude sitting to my right, his head cocked onto his shoulder. Bill’s hands rest neatly on his lap over a tattered copy of National Geographic from 2004. The Sphinx peeks curiously from underneath his fingers. A trucker in his days before the Army, Bill’s face shows the strain and anguish of two tours in Iraq, his skin eroded by the sun and sand. His son was born in October of last year, three months into the deployment. He spent his two weeks on leave catching up before returning to Mosul. I reach into my cargo pocket and feel around for my mp3 player. I find it buried underneath torn black gloves that hold the putrid smell of a year’s worth of sweat and dust. Before putting on my headphones I settle back into my seat, getting low and comfortable. I hit shuffle and the first song that comes up is Time by Pink Floyd. Fitting. I look to my left, expecting to see mud huts dotted along roadside palm groves. Quickly I realize where I am. The fuselage rumbles as we cut through a thick cloud. Streams of gray and white flow over the wing that commands my view in the tiny Plexiglas window. The fasten seatbelt sign dings and flashes courteously, and a message from the pilot sounds just as pleasant. “Gentlemen, in about fifteen minutes we’ll be approaching Bangor International Airport. Please fasten your seatbelts while we make our descent.” Three hundred and forty five days after leaving the states, we’re about to touch down in Maine.

Those of us awake let out a cheer that rouses everyone else to their senses. The sun is barely visible as we make our way to the ground. The lights on the wing blink with an impartial red and white rhythm. As the plane taxis down the runway, the sound of unbuckling seatbelts can be heard throughout. With a spontaneous burst of energy, the officers and senior enlisted men at the front of the plane shuffle toward the door. In the middle, not a man can hide their excitement. One more stretch and we’re home free. For some of us, this was our one and only deployment. Others finished their second, and a third is in their future. But for now, everyone that made it out alive has a year to spend at home before returning to Iraq. Walking down the tunnel that connects the terminal, I spot a crowd on the other side of the clear glass door, decked out in red, white and blue. I see their mouths moving but the only sound I hear is of dirty boots grinding on the clean green and blue checkered carpet. Banners and signs display messages like “Welcome Home” and “Land of The Free.” Both kids and adults wave tiny American flags. Veterans of past wars wear hats proudly displaying their branch of service, with CIB pins and unit insignia stuck in their bills. The crowd takes up most of the terminal, but a line is cut to the waiting area. After an exhausting amount of handshaking, I take a seat in a hard plastic chair.

“I just have to say, I’m so proud of what ya’ll have done” says the woman already sitting down.
“I know it was a hard year.”
Above her head a television on CNN plays without sound. The banner above the news ticker reads “Violence in Baghdad Escalates.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it” I say to her.
“My son is in the Navy. Do you know him?”
A Bradley with half its hull missing lay on its side, flames escaping the hole where the driver used to sit.
“Excuse me?”
“I asked if you know my son” she repeated with a smile.
A squad bearing the 82nd Airborne patch crosses a broad, trash filled street. I see the urgency in their steps and movements. One man covers the intersection with his rifle as the others sprint past him. They must have been in a firefight.
“Oh, I don’t know. I might. What’s his name?”
“Daniel. I think he waves those light sticks at the pilots or something.”
An Iraqi man pleads with tears in his eyes, covered in cuts and blood. A woman with a shrouded face behind him looks up and shakes her hands toward the sky.
“Ah, I can’t say that I know him.”
“I didn’t think so!” she says, with a laugh. “I better find my other son. He’s not quite old enough to join you! Thanks again for your service.”

Before I can return her kind words, the woman walks toward the book shop. I raise my hand to my forehead to part my hair. My palm comes back damp with sweat. I wipe it away on my uniform, down the right sleeve to my wrist. An hour, it was supposed to be. The plane would be done refueling and ready to load back up in about 45 minutes.

“Who the fuck was that?” asks a familiar voice. I take my eyes off the TV and see Josh walking toward me with an unopened pack of Marlboro Lights in his hand.
“I don’t know, some lady who spends her free time at airports. She asked me if I knew her son in the Navy.”
“Dumbass.”
“Yeah.”

Josh has been my roommate for nearly the entire time I’ve known him. At Ft. Lewis we split a corner room in the barracks, and in Mosul we shared a connex with another guy. At 5’6’’, Josh is shorter than most in the platoon but made up for it in brute strength. Most of his free time during the deployment was spent lifting weights at the gym on base. In Mosul and Baghdad he lifted six days in a week. The move to Baqubah uprooted everyone’s routine, especially his. During our three month tenure there, he was lucky to fit in three nights at the gym in seven days. Even on a rare day off we got tasked with escorting commanders to other bases, or standing by in case another unit needed our help in the city. Josh seemed to sweat the muscle right off his body in the 110 degree heat. He put back on a surprising amount of meat during our three week stay in Kuwait. Sitting in the chair beside me, he looks like himself a year ago, more so than the thinner, exhausted frame of two months prior.

“So, you excited about seeing Laur-en?” asks Josh, with his patented strain on the –en.
“I’m excited to see roads that don’t have massive bombs underneath them, but in particular, yes. I am excited to see her.”

Lauren was waiting for me in Washington. This morning will be the first time I’ve ever laid eyes on her. A few months before we deployed, I started talking to her online. We quickly found we had a lot in common. I had about sixty days to meet her in person, but I didn’t. I knew that someone who goes to war comes back a different person. I didn’t want her to look into my eyes and see a changed man, or see me flinch nervously after a sudden noise catches me off guard. I was certain before we left that she was special. In the beginning months of our deployment, I had little opportunity to talk to her. She was at school, I was in northern Iraq. When I received a package from her one day, I had an epiphany. Outside of my family, she was the first person to send me anything. Friends I’ve had for years seemed to forget to send even emails. Before her, I have never known such care. When we got word of going down to Baghdad in November, I was worried it would put a heavier strain on our relationship. Quickly I realized that wasn’t the case. In our platoon bay we could get our own internet line for sixty dollars a month. It was a high price considering the service, but well worth it. I bought a cell phone that took prepaid cards, so after we burned through eighty minutes on the phone, we’d talk online until one of us was forced to leave. Seven hours was the longest we ever talked consecutively. We had a fourteen hour clearing mission the next day, but I wasn’t fazed by an hour of sleep when she was on my mind. I might have been delirious at the end of it, but I’m a daydreamer anyway. So is she. We pledged to wait for each other. Of course it was easier on me than it was on her, but it was the principle of the matter. In a few hours, a year’s worth of waiting, hoping, anticipation, will come together.

The speakers click on: “Attention in the terminal, Flight 815 to McCord Air Force Base will be departing in thirty minutes.” Immediately a flood of voices beckon everyone back to the gate. My hands feel sore from all the handshakes, but I give a few high fives to the crowd before boarding the plane. Entering the cabin again, I find it colder than before. I glide down the aisle to my seat. What was it again, 33A or 35A? I spot the faded, rolled up copy of National Geographic in the center seat. Yep, 33A.

I sit down, buckle in and wait for everyone to board the plane before I put my headphones back in. I close my eyes. The plane is at half capacity, but I can feel the electricity in the air. On the last leg of our journey, it’s finally becoming real. No more patrols, no more heat, no more thirst, no more pain, no more bullets, bombs or bad guys. Just me, Lauren and the rest of my life when the plane touches the ground. Everyone is seated. The engines begin with a faint groan that quickly becomes a roar. We’re moving at two hundred miles an hour when the plane takes off.

I drift in and out of sleep, but it seems like just an instant before we see the plains of the Midwest. The cornfields are a vivid green in the mid-June summer. I can barely make out tractors at work in the early morning fog. Fortunate Son is playing when my mp3 player finally dies after fifteen faithful hours. I should have bought a magazine when I had a chance. I had already read about the restoration work on The Sphinx, so Bill was no help in my cure for boredom. I stare out the window until the plains turn into the Rocky Mountains. Not too long now. Now without music, I can hear the twenty different conversations throughout the plane. Bars to visit, cars to buy, divorces to begin. Josh is talking again of the Halloween party where everyone is going as a superhero. He’s going as Captain America and I, as Thor. My mind drifts to the possibilities of drunken superheroes playfighting in a bar. A lot of demotions seem to be in our future. From the Rocky Mountains it seems like an eternity until we see the deep blues of Puget Sound. I’ve flown into Washington five times, but this is the first I’ve come in during a clear day. The sun is in the middle of the sky and reflecting brilliantly off the water. I count the taps of my left foot until we start descending to McCord. On 937 we feel the hard bump of landing. We’re home.

With how fast the plane emptied, you’d think the back half was on fire. In less than two minutes everyone was off the plane. Coming down the aluminum staircase, we barely make out the crowd standing a safe distance from the runway. In a single file line we make our way to them, but as we recognize faces, the line becomes a mob in a mad dash to loved ones. I search the signs and banners for any mention of my name. On the leftmost corner I spot a multicolored banner with a peace sign on it, saying “Welcome Home Alex.” I can’t help but smile ear to ear. Lauren s standing with her younger sister behind the cardboard sign. I told her jokingly beforehand, look for the guy in the Army uniform. My stride picks up as I get closer. She finally spots me. Twenty feet from her, she’s more beautiful than I could ever imagine. The only thing I can see on earth is her light brown eyes staring back at me. I don’t know who streamed tears first, but ten feet away my vision becomes hazy. I blink to regain clarity. This is it. The beginning. She takes a breath, and with sorrow in her eyes she says two words that melt the tarmac away: “Wake up.”

My eyes shoot open. Staring back at me is the most clear, uninterrupted view of the stars you’ve ever seen. Somewhere in the distance there’s a muffled explosion. “Wake up and get your shit on, we got a patrol,” says Bill, as he throws his boots on, not even stopping to lace them up. I roll over and check my watch. 3:14 Am. On the roof of our outpost on the east side of Baqubah, the mosquitoes dance in a cloud over the sandbag bunker next to me. With half opened eyes I throw on my vest and helmet and walk down the stairs to the gate, lowering my night vision goggles to my eye. “Alright, everyone ready to go?” asks Matt as he lazily steps outside. I pull the charging handle back to chamber a round. "Three more months of this shit," Bill mutters as he follows Matt. Stepping out of the gate, we walk past the charred frame of a car as the frogs croak with indifference in the muggy desert night.

AH

Somnium: Latin. To daydream.
(This story is a work of fiction. I wrote it on June 12, the day we were supposed to be home before we got extended for three months. Instead of flying home, I settled for a flight of fancy.)

19 comments:

Jeff said...

Alex, I had tears in my eyes by the time I got to the end of your story. It's fiction, but it's more real than real life often is. I could see what was coming, but you crafted your narrative so skillfully I was kept in suspense to the end. You set a scene so realistic and vibrant I felt like I was sitting right there beside you. You have a real gift in weaving a story, and I'm certainly looking forward to more. One more question: after you come home, can I be your literary agent?

Love,

Dad

Andrew said...

Alex, you have a better way with words then most any author i have ever read , and i want to thank you for making these simple blogs so inspiring in the end.

Anonymous said...

Alex, this has to be the best piece you have every written. Hang in there.

Love,

Mom

Anonymous said...

ever written. Sheesh, I thought I hit preview...

Love,

Mom

Blue man said...

Great work again Alex...

Anonymous said...

Wow. You're definitely in the same league as Tim O'Brien as a writer. Hang in there. My prayers are with you.

The Big E

Lauren said...

God Alex, way to make me cry again!:) This was beyond amazing and beautiful. I felt every part of it, like it was real. I miss you too, all the time.

with so much love,
Lauren

Anonymous said...

You don't know me, but I stumbled across your blog.

Your posts are very inspiring and fabulous works. I always look forward to updates.

Hang in there. I'm praying for you every day.

NW Shaman said...

Alex, thank you for sharing your gift of writing. I recieved access to the blog from David/Champ's family. We miss him very much and I pray everyday that the creator will keep you safe. Please say hello to Champ for me. Take care.

check out myspace: myspace.com/nwshaman

Anonymous said...

Alex,
I came to know about your blog when your dad recommended it to a good friend of mine, Jen Stow. I'd like to start by saying that your parents are some of our favorite contacts on the FRG roster. If your Lauren ever needs anything, please know that we are here for her as well.
This entry touched me so deeply I feel compelled to thank you. You write more beautifully and honestly than anyone I ever read before. I have lived this story once from war, and dozens of time from TDY, training, or some other army reason for him to be gone. Thank you for sharing the other side with us all. Reading it allowed me to relive the joy of his last homecoming, and make the upcoming one seem more real. Thank you.

Thank you,
Bryna Erickson
5-20 wife

Erin (Thompson) said...

Alex,
Your story reminds me so much of Justin and I during his first deployment. You write beautifully. I wish you and Lauren all the happiness and love in the world. I hope the four of us can spend time together when you both return home. Keep your hopes up, she will be in your arms sooner than you know. :)

Anonymous said...

Your Dad sent me.

Beautiful writing. Jeff is justifiably proud of your talent.

Take care of yourself.

rick

Anonymous said...

I was linked to your Blog by Andrew Sullivan today (August 26th) and, after reading your latest couple posts, began reading from the beginning. Despite knowing the reality of your current situation and, like your father, knowing what was coming, I somehow held onto hope until the very end of this post. You and everyone depending on your safe homecoming will remain in my thoughts for long after your return.

Pepijn said...

Beautiful

Anonymous said...

i was born with a hole in my heart. I had open heart surgery at 3 years old to repair it. my fondest wish growing up was to join the Army and kill gooks in Vietnam, because that's what my dad did for a living.
It took me a year to get in the Navy, and I spent my service years gassing Kurds for Saddam Hussein, I wish the fuck I'd never joined. I had a better excuse not to join than every Republican't chickenhawk I know.

Anonymous said...

sorry, my writing didn't come out the way i meant it to.
bless you dude. Navy all the way.
I just thought my dad killed gooks for a living.
I was a little stupid kid and my dad never talked about Vietnam or Korea, he was ashamed of it or something, my BILs talked about it, but not my Dad.
And they are people, not gooks, sorry.

hoohma said...

OMG! Pinch me. That was so real, I was crying as you walked up to Lauren and I couldn't figured why you were going home already. Should have applied my latin knowledge to your title- duh! God, Alex, you writing has me mesmorized. I'm sitting here at work and can't wait for a chance to read more. My son left for Iraq in Sept. This puts me there with him. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

I can't know what you have gone through, however, your writing is so real that it evokes the past of my military service. Which is to say was nothing like yours. What we ask you to do is horrible, but you still do it. And for that I can only ask your forgivness.

Think fast brother speak slow and always keep moving towards your goal, Lauren, home, love. I say a prayer for your fallen brothers and those you still have beside you. For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the wolf is of the pack. Is what we used to say in the depths of the ocean so far below.

Know that what your doing is worth it to all those who can't do it for themselves, however wrong or right it may seem now or in the future. It seems that you have a prepared mind and that is a very dangerous/great thing to have. It reminds me of my favorite quote, "Chance favors the prepared mind." When the time comes you will look favored upon.

Keep going!!!

Anonymous said...

Nice writing! Thanks and good luck!