Monday, September 27, 2004

Back to the Box

"You know, then the pulley broke, so they told us it would take two months to get a new one..."

The sun set on a soft, autumn day, and we'd just spent the glorious day sailing on Lake Ontario. He was a retired Air Force Colonel, former fighter pilot, God bless 'im, who had joined us on the dock as we returned...but he was also overbearing, knew goddamn everything, told these lugubriously boring stories about nothing, and stood entirely too close to have breath that bad. We stood in the Brewpub bar, waiting for a table.

"So then I flew down to Hanoi and we looked for a pulley in the catalogue..." The spooge from the underside of an interstate Texaco urinal. I tried to subtly back away. Breathed through my mouth. Nothing doing, he just blew the stench all over me.

"Then we called a place in New Jersey..." The more I tried to regain my personal space, the louder (and more blustery) he became. I figured out that if I buried my nose in my waterglass, the lemon on the rim masked it with some success.

The damn story, about how he'd saved the American taxpayers thousands of dollars getting a pulley from some odd place, went on forever. Tell me a combat story, I'm all ears, but this one was droll as watching golf. You'd think a Nam fighter pilot would have great stories. This one, he chose to tell the ones about ham radio operators and the guy they met in Saigon who'd been to his hometown.

"Aren't you glad the last President drew down your numbers to the point you have to deploy twice in one year?" I.e., it's Clinton's fault I'm in Iraq because a million soldiers aren't enough to fight an insurgency in a two-bit sandbox.

"I'm even more happy my current President committed us to two theaters at the same time for no compelling reason." I said. I just cannot believe this guy would blame Clinton for the trainwreck in Iraq. Laughable. He looked a bit taken aback but laughed it off.

The whole experience reminded me of one Saturday night in New Orleans, I was at Le Bon Temps (great uptown live music dive) with my friend, James. ReBirth Brass Band played for free and we'd just gorged ourselves on raw oysters. We stood close to the stage, just letting all those thumpin' horns wash over us.

Suddenly, the stench of the bottom layer of a two-month-buried coffin washed over me. My face scrunched and I looked at James to see if he'd been hit. He appeared nonplussed.

It soon wafted away after I took another swig of Red Stripe. It wasn't long, though, it hit me again, stronger this time.

"Damn! What the HELL is that stench??" I shouted over the funk. James shrugged. I looked all around. We pressed up against the other ReBirth fans, but the crew around me all looked like frat boys, all drinking, and beer normally goes a long way to mask the Inner Funk of the Unclean Piehole.

There it was again. And then it hit me. The trombone player pointed the brass right at me...and his breath, it came all the way through the instrument and still stank on the other side. He was a pretty wonky-looking character anyway, and I wrote the stench off to frequent drug use.

I didn't need to fret, though. A few minutes later, four cop cars pulled up outside. The band members all exchanged worried glances, some shrugged, all of this mid-jam. The trombone player, his eyes darted all around the room, he looked as though he considered making a break for it.

Sure enough, a crowd of cops washed in, pushed right up to the stage, and cuffed him. Right in the middle of a song. I thought there would be a riot. The rest of the band? Mostly laughed and kept playing.

Too bad, though, that the Air Force Colonel was nowhere near as entertaining as the stanky trombone player.

I'm leaving in a couple of hours, back on the plane. I look out my window at the fiery maple tree, my peaceful front porch, the incredible amplification of color a cool, crisp day will deliver. And I can't even enjoy it, knowing I won't see it again for at least six months.

It is hard to go back. I'd be bawling like a little girl if I didn't miss M so much, if I didn't look forward to seeing him. We've emailed daily, some of them rather naughty, and I think we've told each other more in the last two weeks than we would have in six months over there.

Back to the Sandbox. Wish me luck.

Friday, September 24, 2004

And they're off!

I arrived a little early to the trail ride, having painfully hiked up the top half of Whiteface Mountain. Painfully because I have a bum knee, and it started grinding and popping about halfway up. I probably should have turned around, but I really wanted to see the top of this thing. The big gondola-ride thing was broken.

So no more hiking, might as well ride. Nothing painful there, right?

My horse's name was Zeus--he was a handsome quarterhorse, used to race and now played polo in his spare time. He looked too big to play polo to me--aren't they called Polo Ponies because they need to be smaller? At any rate, Zeus clearly had some pluck, some spirit, because one of the other ladies had already expressed reservations about him. So I took him--I used to ride fairly regularly as a child, and anyway, I'm an Army Officer! No horse is gonna punk me out!

I only ride English. Western is just too clunky, you can't post on the trot and it seems more an operation of just hanging on than actually riding. Problem with this particular English saddle, though, they'd swapped out the stirrup straps, and the right one was about a half-inch shorter than the left. There was no hole in the middle of the leather to make it right. No one had a pocket knife once I was sure there was an imbalance--after we'd cantered up a road and that half-inch became VERY pronounced.

So we stopped, and I leaned back in the saddle to see what I could do--lengthen them both a bit, even it up. I was working on the right one as two guys galloped up behind us, full speed. I felt Zeus tense up, and lifted my left hand to tighted up on the reigns...just as he launched, full-speed, after the galloping pair.

I'm sure it all would've looked funny on camera. I only had one stirrup, I gripped the pommel with both hands, shouting, afraid to let go with one hand to pull the reigns harder, bouncing all over the horse. The galloping pair stopped--we'd caught them, that Zeus can haul ass--and Zeus, he ground his front hooves into the earth and stopped.

Funny thing about inertia, I didn't stop. Kept going, right over his head, envisioning catastrophic injury. Next thing I knew, I was standing next to the horse, missing a shoe. I'm told I grabbed his neck, hugged it, looped around him, and landed squarely on my feet. I am NOT a graceful person, I don't know how it happened this way. One of the other riders said it looked like a gymnast's dismount.

Funny thing about gymnasts, they're flexible, can put their feet behind their heads and whatnot. As soon as I took a step, I thought, damn, that's gonna hurt tomorrow. My back and right leg stiffened up immediately, someone had to lift me back onto Zeus's back.

That was yesterday. And yes indeed it DOES hurt today. I can barely walk. But I'd rather have scorching muscle soreness than broken limbs...or worse. All the way back to the barn, all I could think about was how it would play out in the Battle Update Brief to the Colonel in Iraq:

Personnel Officer: "LT will be delayed a couple of weeks, she broke her leg falling off a horse."
The Colonel: "She WHAT? You're joking! She fell off a horse?!? What the hell was she doing on a horse?"

I'd never live it down.

There's One in Every Crowd

I ate breakfast yesterday in the dining room of the little bed & breakfast where I stayed in Lake Placid, in the amazing fall foliage of the Adirondacks. An older couple, obviously married for many years, sat at the only other table in the sunroom. It was a glorious morning, crisp and cool, I had an appointment for a trail ride (horses) in the mountains, the coffee was strong, and I sat there savoring every molecule of sunshine, every bite of the fluffy and perfect omelet.

Lady: "Well, this was just a huge disappointment."

I couldn't help but eavesdrop, it was quiet as a morgue in there.

Man: "I just wish they had more variety."
Lady: "This is made with Eggbeaters."
Man: "Well, I just don't eat omelets. I can't imagine why we can't have pancakes."
Lady: "And now we'll have to find someplace else to eat breakfast!!"

It went on like this and I winced as they angrily confronted the waitress, then the cook, who was also the part-owner. It was a tiny inn, adorable and antique-filled. My room had a balcony and was full of light. And the omelet was most certainly NOT Eggbeaters--I've had fake eggs in my time, believe me, and these were real. You can't get that flavor, that fluffiness from eggwhites alone.

The owner/cook, clearly shaken from the confrontation, came to clear my plates. I told her the omelet was delicious, that those people must just be naturally difficult.

"I don't understand," she said. "I've been doing this for eight years, I've never been told the breakfast was horrible!" It had clearly ruined her whole day. Someone who takes pride in what they do, they'll take it personally when criticized this way.

I suppose it's all about perspective. It sounds silly to me to hear someone complain about much of anything at all on a morning like that. I made myself laugh picturing the couple in Iraq, in the chow hall...this isn't chocolate sauce on my ice cream, they poured chocolate milk on it! This isn't even real milk! They only have iceberg lettuce! And why do we have to wear all this GEAR, for chrissake! This rifle is heavy! It's hot out here!

That actually happened to me, by the way, they poured chocolate milk on my ice cream when I thought I was getting chocolate sauce. But that's getting pretty prima donna, also, complaining about ice cream in a combat zone. So I didn't complain, I laughed about it, scraped off the contaminated bits of ice cream, and ate it anyway.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Adirondack Bound

I'm spending a larger chunk of money than usual on two nights in the "Equestrian Suite" in an old bed & breakfast in Lake Placid, NY. The suite has a jacuzzi tub, a view of Mirror Lake, private balcony, big soft bed with down comforter, breakfast served in the room (local maple syrup, yum). Terri couldn't go with me, so I'm going by myself. Which I don't mind a bit. Two days of fishing and hiking and the leaves are at peak color in the Adirondacks.

This is the first time in my life I've had money. I make plenty of it and don't mind spending it on myself. All my expenses are MORE than handled, I invest a rather large sum of money toward retirement, I have savings, why shouldn't I drop some cash on a mini vacation? I caught a great deal of hell in Iraq for spending $120 on a pair of Bose headphones, and asked the question, Did any of ya'll put any money into my checking account? No? So shut up!

I'm eating too damn much. That's what vacation is for, though. I'll return to Iraq all plump and happy. Well, not very happy about going back to that hellhole, but plump at least.

But first, I'm going night sailing with the Sackets crowd on R's big boat. R is an older gentleman, charming, sounds just like Gordon Elliot with the accent (he was born in South Africa), owns a bridge-material company both here and in Montreal.

I wouldn't go without Rachel and the crew though, because last time I saw him, he grabbed my underwear. I had on low-waisted pants, I guess the underwear poked out the back as I leaned over. And he grabbed it. Mind you, the guy's like, sixty. It's like drowning filet mignon in ketchup--stop! You're ruining it!

But with R, I was pretty direct when he grabbed my panties. I don't imagine there will be a repeat performance, and he only goes into Dirty Old Man mode when he's been drinking. Tonight he has to sail the boat, and he loves that boat too much to drive it drunk.

Even still, there is noting so creepy as a 60-year-old man grabbing your panties. Rates right up there with getting dressed in front of a State Trooper. But that's a different story.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Messes, Shoddy Workmanship, and I'll Take Care of It When I Get Back

I painted first the bathroom, which was still Pepto-Bismol pink, then the bedroom. The bedroom sported this frou-frou, granny flowered border crap along the top of the walls. I decided to paint over it.

But the bottom seam curled up just enough for full exposure of my laziness. So I tore off the bottom, then painted over the rest. Who'da thunk sage-colored paint makes such a great wallpaper glue dissolver? Bits bubbled up and had to be torn off, one little shitty swatch at a time, and the piles of paint-sticky wallpaper mounted on the paint tray of the ladder. Some fell on the floor and I had to be careful not to step on it and grind it into the carpet.

I have a big dresser, a hastily-bought, put together yourself job I planned to replace but just haven't yet. I put it together with power tools almost two years ago, it was gorgeous. Then it sat directly over an electric baseboard-heater going full blast for two northern New York winters. It must've warped the wood or something, because now the entire left side has splintered damn near off, despite the nails and screws I've driven in there in a lame attempt to resurrect the dead donkey. The doors and drawers don't close, it looks like shit. And it's heavy enough to put your ass in traction if you try to move it. It took three guys to get this damn thing up my stairs last April.

When I tried to move it aside to paint behind it, the damn thing nearly fell apart. So I moved it out enough to paint behind it as far as the eye can see. I know, shitty work. Put it on the "I'll-take-care-of-it-when-I-get-back" list.

Then I couldn't move the bed. Not one inch. Shortcut, shoddy work-girl, I just passed the roller between the slats (it's a metal sleigh bed) and rolled the color down far enough you have to turn around while actually in the bed and peer down there to see the unpainted bit. Yes, it's poor workmanship. I don't care. Put THAT on the same list.

It will be my pleasure to check off all these little messes on my list when I get back. Because none of those messes comes close to the ones I face going back to Iraq. Those messes, I'll leave behind in that miserable sewer of a nation. I quite like my own messes.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Chatterbox Cafe

One of my oldest friendships is with this lunatic named Luci. We've been close since the morning in 1989 when I awoke after a night of drinking and fighting with my butthole roommate, Joey, to find crazy Luci sitting on my bed, asking me to move in with her and to hell with that butthole Joey. She had been living with Donald, with whom I shared my first kiss on Heather Adair's front porch in ninth grade. Donald remained a friend and I still love to run into him whenever I go home to Oxford, Mississippi--he and Luci both are two of those great, generous-hearted people you hang onto lifelong.

But at any rate, I moved into Luci's tiny, eccentric house at the bottom of Jackson Avenue. Donald had just moved out but the breakup was amicable and he still popped over from time to time. Luci is a Loud, Talkative Southern Woman, just like me. So of course we hit it off, and of course we stay in touch. There are only so many Loud, Talkative Southern Women out there, and I'm a firm believer in keeping good friends as long as we can bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyles.

Before I deployed to Afghanistan, Luci complained that she'd gained thirty pounds. When I got back from Afghanistan, she sent me an email that said, in essence, that she was a mommy. Holy shit! I yelled on the phone. You told me you'd gained thirty pounds, you didn't tell me it was a PERSON!

But that's Luci. I called her last night and put on my best older-Southern-woman accent and stated I was Mrs. Gloria Merriwether of the Macon, Georgia, Merriwethers, please call me back at the following number. She called back howling with laughter after she figured out it was me.

After complaining about Iraq for awhile and going on about the work climate and the assholes, during which she hollered in righteous indignation like a friend is supposed to do, I told her about someone in Iraq saying I was a chatterbox.

I don't know why it bothered me. I talk alot. Always have. That won't change, ever.

But Luci, she said exactly what I needed her to say. Even more righteously indignant, she yelled, Girrl, you are the most entertaining person I've ever known! If they don't GET it, they can't keep up! It's not LIKE you're going on about the WEATHER, for god's sake! You have a BRAIN and you're funny as SHIT and FUCK 'EM if they don't GET IT!

That's why I keep that crazy bitch around. I'm so glad I can attain and retain these wonderful longtime frineds I have. I've always had instant connections to certain people, and I'm never wrong, we always end up loving each other for life.

There's Jules, my beautiful, elegant friend from our angry, post-punk high school days. She's a Columbia-educated nurse-midwife, now living in Portland. Luci, of course. She lives in northern California now, but we renewed our friendship when I lived with her in New Orleans, before I got my own place in the city where she was the only person I knew at first. Michelle, a roommate from college in Athens, Georgia, who climbs mountains all over North America and makes maps in Lexington, Kentucky. Tracey, a gifted painter I ran around with, also in New Orleans. Jim, my big gay friend from Athens. Jeff, also a gifted painter, who still lives in Oxford, Mississippi, where we were friends in high school, then college, and now he's one of the people I can count on for a beer and some entertaining stories when I go home to deal with family nastiness. Josee, the one I hang out with in Iraq, will be one of the hang-onto crew.

I go through these uncomfortable times when I feel utterly out of my element. Iraq is NOT my element, I am NOT myself there. And not in a good way. It has eroded my sense of self, bruised my confidence, I guess burnout has that effect on me. Thank God for the Luci's of the world, who can bring it all back home for me. I must be one cool lady, to have so many amazing friends.

So now I'm sitting in my den, on my second glass of champagne (well, sparkling wine, technically, it's Australian--and delicious). Drinking at feels exactly right. I am blessed with friends, no matter what ugliness I go through in Iraq, no matter who calls me chatterbox, no matter what happens with Dad, if I get betrayed by co-workers, jerked around, none of it matters once I get here and can reconnect with my bitches.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Pink and White Striped Bag

I went shopping again today, and left Victoria's Secret with a nice new collection. See, I was wrongfully accused of wearing boys' underwear. (Such scandalous accusations! Untrue!) So what better way to prove the opposite than the undisclosed, wait-and-see contents of the infamous pink-and-white-striped bag. I also procured a bottle of delicious champagne and various accoutrements from Bath and Body'd think I had company coming over.

I don't. The champagne is for me to savor on the front porch and see if I like it enough to serve it (and an Australian Savignon Blanc) when I make dinner for friends on Monday. I'm thinking spanakopeta, the Greek spinach pastry made of phyllo, a spinach salad, my favorite soup made with chick peas/potatoes/rosemary, and homemade ice cream for dessert. I have truly missed cooking.

I ate lunch today with Kelley, a Signal officer who was on the Ten Miler team with me last year (we were friends before that, though). She's as disenchanted with the Army as I am, and she's never deployed. She and her husband (a rather salty guy I worked with last year in the Engineer Battalion) have been separated by the Army for the past three years due to deployments, schools, temporary duties, etc. And now it looks like he'll deploy in a couple of months and she will not.

The only officer I know right now who plans to stay in the Army is Shayla, my fellow LT in Iraq. I think she has this vision of herself as a Colonel and plans to sit it out. Hell, more power to her. It's just not the life for me.

Like Kelley, though, I loved the Army until all this shit happened, the endless deployments and unmanagable operational tempo. No end in sight for that dynamic.

It's late afternoon and the maple tree in my backyard which is taller than the house has just started turning red. The sun filters through it and all over the deck, into the dining room, all the way in to where I sit in the den. Phil put the ugliest goddamn coffee table I've ever seen in here--straight out of the '70's, thick pine, complete with cheesy iron fittings. I haven't asked where my coffeetable is, and I haven't seen it around the house. I suppose I should ask this question--his explanation of the coffee table was that he puts his feet on it and didn't want to ruin mine. Fair enough, I suppose, but depending on where he's storing mine, it could get ruined anyway.

But for now, the champagne has been in the freezer long enough for me to enjoy a glass in the shade of my fiery maple tree. I cannot even enjoy it fully, knowing I have to go back.

This will all be here when I get back for good. Whenever that may be.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise

Several big and not entirely pleasant suprises on returning home.

Surprise # 1: The House is Filthy. Terri picked me up at the airport (I love this lady) in my truck, which has been washed, waxed, and vacuumed. It looks brand new and I got to drive it home. The little things you miss. The whole way up, she told me about how filthy the house was—she cleaned it yesterday, for which I owe her 70 bucks (Phil will pay this one, it’s HIS filth). Evidently, the boy has been just slogging around in his own filth in my home. To his credit, he hasn’t had parties and the cats are well taken care of…so I count my blessings there.

Surprise #2: The House is Periwinkle. WHOA. I chose what I thought was a muted blue/grey. What I got is straight periwinkle. Holy shit. So I’ve already picked out a charcoal grey for Dave to paint over it in the spring. There’s a house on the next street that looks like mine and is charcoal grey and looks fabulous. Then you drive down my street and POW, there’s my house. It would look adorable in New Orleans. But up here, in the Land of the Philistines and Formidable Matrons, it’s a bit much.

Surprise #3: Phil is still here. As soon as I walked in the door, the excuses started…My truck broke down, I haven’t had time to seal the deck/paint the bathroom/start the floors, insert about four more predictable excuses here. He’s leaving tonight. The house looks great, thanks to Terri, but his junk is scattered around…I expected that.

(Sidebar, no real surprises here) Sleeping in my bed is like checking into a five-star hotel. I spent money on the softest sheets, plush down comforter, a fine pillow-top mattress. And with all that, I didn’t sleep well. Kept waking up and savoring the cool ceiling fan breeze, the soft sheets, the crickets outside the open window, the rain, the amazing way that bed feels.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Out of the Box

I feel more like myself than I have in months. I'm in Kuwait, so technically still the sandbox...but I'm wearing my own clothes, sipping a Starbucks, and wondering if yanking someone's ponytail would constitute UCMJ-prosecutable assault. There are two women next to me, one stationed in Kuwait, the other in Iraq.

Kuwait: "So, do you like it up there?"
Iraq: "Yeah, it's okay. It gets kind of boring."
Kuwait: "Don't you have a movie theater where you are?"
Iraq: "Yeah, but they only change out the movie once a week."
Kuwait: "And I heard there's a pool."
Iraq: "Yeah, but it gets crowded."

Okay, ladies, come spend a day in MY world, and complain about your crowded pools and movies that only change once a week. There is a pool at my base, but I will NEVER, I repeat, NEVER have the time to go. Movie theater? Are you kidding?

And besides, what little free time I have is spent either sleeping or breaking the rules. Which I can't get off my mind (not the sleeping part). It's no small feat to have something to get me on the plane back to Iraq after my two weeks at home are over. And I cannot quit thinking about how much more enjoyable this trip would be if Mark could come along...I'd love to spend a couple of days in my big gorgeous bed, answering the door only to accept food.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Go West, Young Woman

Only nine days left until I can sleep in my own bed for two straight weeks. West, into the sunset. The young woman part is debatable, I just turned 34.

One of my soldiers had a huge crisis of confidence this afternoon. I could see she was on the verge of tears, so I skirted the elephant in the living room until she got to it in her own way. Which was to burst into tears. She wanted to quit. Didn't think she could do this. Doesn't feel there's anyone to go to bat for her. Her supervisor couldn't care less if she got shot in the face by a field-grade officer.

I've had exactly these thoughts, exactly this crisis. Over and over, only in the portajohn, trying to keep quiet enough that passersby don't hear it. So I said the same things to her that I say to myself at least once a day: you CAN do this. Whether or not you CHOOSE to is another matter. You learn the most in times like this. You'll come out of it stronger. Have a whole new perspective, a new way to frame all the events of your life after this year. This is where your character kicks in and gets you through it. We're all in the same boat. Hang in there.

It probably works better coming from someone else. Plus I went in with her to talk to the Major, when she thought she'd get chewed out and was terrified. Her supervisor wouldn't support her. And here's where it got a bit odd, and brought home the point that I am truly an island adrift in the Big Boys' Club that is any Infantry Brigade: MY supervisor, the Major, shot me an annoyed look as we left the room and asked, snidely: What, are you playing Mother Hen now?

I was appalled. Mother Hen?!? I'm her Platoon Leader, I responded, making no effort to conceal my irritation with the patronizing remark.

This is what we do as leaders. You don't send your Sergeant in to talk to a field grade officer by herself. At least I don't.

What is WRONG with these people? They make this crap so much harder than it has to be, then find weakness where there should be kindness. We can't even support each other? I keep chalking my crisis moments up to being in a World Class Funk, when maybe all those nasty thoughts I have in my weak moments are right on target.

I need to surround myself with my friends and family, get my perspective back, so I don't turn into an asshole like this organization encourages.