Installment # 7, 24 April 2009:
Hi! Another week, another letter! Today is my 55th day in country—just 35 more to go.
I’m located on a huge base near the small Iraqi town of Balad, which is north of Baghdad. Everything is built around an airfield—one that Saddam Hussein used for his fighter planes. In 2004 we called it Camp Anaconda, but the latest name is Joint Base Balad or JBB for short. I just call it Balad. That’s fine, but I recently learned that I have to be careful with the spelling. I sent an email back to our Guard Headquarters in Columbus to let them know that one of my medical officers, whose first name is Carla, had arrived safely. I was in a hurry so I hastily pounded out a brief line reminiscent of an old-time telegram. They were taken aback to read, “Carla has arrived Bald.” Oops!
One of the most striking things about Iraq—and Balad is no exception—is its mind numbing monochromaticity*. Dirt is the culprit. Over the millennia, dirt has been the one true ruler of the region. Yes, dirt is king! It subsumes all else—roads, rocks, buildings, vegetation, critters—even me. It collapses the visible spectrum of light to a single brownish hue. Here in the cradle of civilization only the dirt (and its lackadaisical companion, brown!) shall abide the ages...
Some of Saddam’s original buildings are still here, and we’ve moved into them. They are typically one story block and stucco affairs—brown, of course—and often you can get onto the roofs. Legend has it that Saddam and his sons sat atop these structures, smoked fine cigars and watched their fighter jets roar through the sky as they discussed the prospects of a pan-Arab empire… under their leadership, of course. I can almost feel their presence as I walk the same hallways and view the same sights. It’s a little eerie… I had a similar experience in Germany, when I climbed to a viewing window atop an imposingly tall Bavarian tower that looked over a pre-WWII training area and parade ground. It was alleged that Hitler had stood in that very spot, before the war, and appraised the mettle of his freshly birthed army. That place was downright spooky!
So, what would the Husseins see today if they could once again sit atop these buildings and survey the scene? Well, I’m sure they’d be appalled—picture Saddam grabbing his chest and gasping for air! U.S. military personnel are everywhere; the place is lousy with us! Hulking mine-resistant war vehicles (parts of which were made in Scioto County!) cruise the streets with impunity. Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, with crew cabs, fill the roads. Helmeted (and goggled and reflective-belted) soldiers whizz around on Gators, while every sort of bicycle you can imagine rolls along the streets and graveled lots.
Let me tell you about the bikes! One guy has a tiny one like you might see in a circus, with itty-bitty wheels and peddles, but with a seat and handle bars that stretch up to accommodate a full size man. It’s absolutely goofy. Dusty black mountain bikes predominate, and it’s common to see gangs of youngsters zip along, each with an M-16 stowed vertically, muzzle down, at the rear tire. Some have installed miniature engines on their bikes, creating sort of a mini moped. I saw a number of these go puttering by one night, feeble motors wheezing and coughing, dim headlights barely penetrating the Iraqi darkness. Another guy built himself a trike—looked like he still had a few kinks to work out of that design!
There’s an Air Force kid that’s really funny—he has a 1960s style banana-seated stingray that’s laid back to imitate a Peter Fonda easy-rider style chopper. The forks go way out in front and the handlebars are some real ape-hangers! It’s so ridiculous that he can barely pedal it. Still, he gets a kick out of it—and so does everyone else.
Are you ready for my biggest surprise lately? I was walking to work, alone with my thoughts, contemplating the dirt on the sidewalk, when suddenly I heard a familiar voice call out from just behind me. It was one of our chaplains saying hello—from the seat of a unicycle! He wobbled by, smiling like a kid from beneath a bicycle helmet, a reflective belt thrown over his shoulder like a bandolier. He meandered on and surprised another walker, sharing his good-natured ministry in one of the most unusual ways I’ve ever seen. Again, picture Saddam watching from a rooftop, clutching his chest…
Time to close, but I have to mention the crazy ants that we have here at Balad. They are some tough looking little dudes! Their tail parts stick up in the air, making them look really short. They sprint aggressively from one point to the next—and they are very, very fast! They run right at you as if they are going to attack. Crikey!
In the above story—right before the chaplain surprised me—I was not only contemplating the dirt on the sidewalk but also dodging the ants. I have yet to discover whether or not they will actually bite… For the time being I’ve tossed them into the same category used by the UPS guy back home for my cute little wiener dog, Auggie, who bashes into the door, chomping and slobbering, when his truck pulls up at our house—”Potentially Dangerous, Best Left Alone”!
Next week I’ll tell you about my visit to the ancient biblical city of Ur, birthplace of Abraham...