Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tower Guard

We're on guard-tower duty this afternoon, me and Specialist Timms. Timms is a cook, and thus part of a different platoon, but our wives are friends back in garrison. We know each other well enough. The day has been cold, but bright, and fairly uneventful.

In the tower forty feet up, a stiff breeze blows intermittently, and both of us are dressed in heavy layers underneath our helmets and body armor. Tower guard is a week-long duty rotation, staffed by soldiers from local units. This week, it was our turn, so for the next few days, we'll be operating in six hour-shifts, which include briefings, inspections, and the guard duty itself. It's supposed to be four hours on, eight off, but as is to be expected in the army, time constraints serve really more as guidelines than as actual rules.

The sun is sinking in the late afternoon sky. We pass the time by talking of home, arguing about the best place stateside for pizza, and about the merits of muscle versus import tuner cars. We pass a set of binoculars between us as we talk, scanning the barren farmland for signs of suspicious activity or danger to U.S. assets. There are times, staring out at the endless expanse of Diyala province, when I find something beautiful in this place. The fields seem to stretch on forever, and but for the occasional palm tree, I could easily mistake the scenery for a view of the northern Midwest.

We basically play "I Spy" all afternoon, watching farmers tend to slow herds of cattle, or follow a trio of children--siblings, I suspect--as they lead a large gaggle of sheep out to feed. During my time with the binoculars, I notice that none of the children appears to be older than nine. The only boy, I also notice, walks barefoot, even in forty degree weather. More remarkable still, as he turns to make a joke to his older sister, I notice something else: the boy, as olive-skinned as the rest of his companions, possesses a thick shock of ruddy blond hair. The genetic makeup of the Middle East, I observe, is far more diverse than we realize. A female voice puts out a spot report over the radio. We hear her say she has visual confirmation of 'suspicious' behavior. When pressed for details by Tower Main, however, she becomes unable to provide an approximate distance or azimuth. Asked for the uniforms donned by her supposed terrorists, she merely responds "Man-dresses." Timms and I have to laugh. The radio goes silent for a few moments, and then a nearby tower reports in to complete the botched report. The two men she sees, it turns out, are burning garbage to stay warm.

Our conversation moves along to house music and then to our wives back home. We talk of how we met our spouses, and how military life has affected our marriages. On the other side of a ditch just below us, a boy of roughly ten pedals slowly past us on a bike too large for him by at least five years. He has to stand upright, all but straddling the support bar, just to keep control, and his sandals continually slip against the surface of the pedals. I point this scene out to my friend. He squints down. "Wonder where he's going," I say. Timms merely shrugs.

Five o'clock approaches, and with it evening. The breeze dies down, and as twilight draws near I decide to indulge in a smoke, before it gets too dark to do so inside the tower. I take out a Marlboro, offering my pack first to Timms-- "nah, I'm good" --and then pause to light myself up. I blow out a plume of grey smoke into the chill December air, and lean against the plywood countertop, listening in silence to the static-filled bursts of radio chatter from the other towers. A pair of Apache helicopters thuds away against the distant sunset.

After a moment, Timms speaks up again. "Damn, dude." He points out to the city outskirts
about a mile northwest of us. "Look at it." He hands me the binoculars.

"Looks like they got a storage shed over there," he says.

I nod. "Yep."

"I swear I saw a mini-mart out there, like a little haji-mart, ya know?" I cast him a sidelong glance at this use of terminology, handing him the binoculars back as I pluck the cigarette from between my lips. He laughs.

"Whaddaya wanna bet they got a friggin' McDonald's over there? Go out the wire, order myself a double cheeseburger, hey?"

I don't respond at first; I only exhale and stick my smoke back in my mouth. I fold my arms and lean against the bulkhead of the tower, staring out at the horizon.

"Something tells me," I say slowly, "that places like this don't really 'do' McDonald's." I flick a glance back at my partner. "Know what I mean?"

"Not really."

I shrug. "Call it a hunch." I continue my scan of the plains. Off in the distance, perhaps 10 miles out, a trio of charcoal smoke blooms have mushroomed into the air, and are quickly disippating eastward with the wind. We're too far away to have heard any explosions, but looking at these formations I can tell that their appearance is far too sudden, their blossoms far too neatly spaced to be anything besides the obvious. I point them out to Timms.

"Looks like someone's set off a daisy-chain."


Blogger Seven of Six said...

I can see Army guard duty hasn't changed much.

Stay safe Milo.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Peacechick Mary said...

Keep warm.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous blue girl said...

You painted a great picture of your day. Especially interesting -- the little boy with the blonde hair. It's weird how a little thing like that would be so surprising.

Good writing. Stay safe.

4:17 PM  
Blogger iamcoyote said...

Brings back memories, that's for sure. I did a navy stint as a kid, and always pulled the am shift. Boring as hell when nothing's happening, whether it's a hangar in WA state or a tower in Iraq. I'm glad it boring for you guys, though; excitement is dangerous, no matter how well trained you are. The kids break my heart, growing up in such an atmosphere.

Did you see that Riverbend has posted at last? As always, it's a relief that she's okay, and a tragedy how she's changed over the years.

6:40 PM  
Blogger tempus said...

Hey, Milo.

I hope the shift was quiet. How much shit has hit the fan since Saddam was erased? I hope you and your brothers in arms are safe. Keep your head low!

8:53 AM  
Blogger tempus said...

Oh, Milo, I forgot to ask...despite the reputation of 'shit on a shingle', I understand that the KFC is pretty good. Can you send me a bucket? I'll send you an NFL helmet! Maybe even signed by Britney, or whoever she flashed last night!

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Connie said...

Milo, I'm catching up on correspondence and find myself wondering where you are and what you're doing. I noticed your comment on our blog recently (thank you) and am now so very pleased you stopped by to say hello. It's a pleasure to "meet" you. Steve and I look forward to getting to know you through your words...

Our thoughts are with you,

Connie and Steve Kuusisto

8:11 PM  
Blogger soul pumpkin said...

...excellent writing as always, Milo...keep it coming and Happy New Year...

9:39 PM  
Blogger dorsano said...

You're a great photographer. Thanks for writing. Keep yourself and yours safe - and Godspeed in all you do.

6:28 AM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

Happy New Year, Milo. Stay safe.

11:24 PM  
Anonymous john fletcher said...

Have a happy, safe New Year. You've got a lovely prose style.

10:13 PM  

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