See previous blog entry for Part I
I am a fan of war movies, especially those films depicting soldiers in World War II as they sit around airfields and flight terminals waiting for their transportation to battle. I always assumed that such moments, as devised by Hollywood, paid true testament to the moments when soldiers bonded, when they solidified their camaraderie and fellowship; when banter was witty and biting and strangely intelligent, given the circumstances. After sitting with other uniformed personnel for several hours in an airport terminal on Thanksgiving morning, I learned that I had been mightily deluded by those scenes. Most of us that morning were tired, shrill, impenetrably absorbed in our own personal discomfort, slightly foul of odor, and unable to string two sentences together without a few F-bombs littering our grammar.
The movies often show soldiers in similar situations playing cards and throwing dice, the financial fin de siècle behavior brought on by war and the uncertainty of survival and return to the conventional existence of their homeland. None of that took place on Thanksgiving morning either, as the DoD has made it a point in America’s most recent wars to prohibit any vice that might provide measurable entertainment and relief to the troops. Besides, I am an officer and most of those willing to wager their salaries would have been enlisted. It isn’t proper that I gamble with them, especially if I am ready to take their money (which I would be). I admit that in the past I have ventured into a few low-stakes games of chance with younger enlisted personnel, and I have found them as a group to be rather reckless with their betting and unwilling to allow the odds to direct their wagering; and although I could rely on them for regular income, it’s best that I keep my distance, sort of like Vegas gamblers remain isolated (supposedly) from the athletes on whose performances they bet millions.
But gambling wasn’t forefront on my mind as I sat through my sixth hour at the terminal Thanksgiving morning. Instead, I was wondering when I would be able to get myself a bit of lunch. Thanksgiving is a holiday that prizes gluttony, and I had yet to take a bite of anything. Had I been at my mother’s house, I already would have eaten a large breakfast and most of the skin off the family turkey that sits freshly roasted and preening in the kitchen before the early afternoon feast. The instructions from our surly “flight coordinator,” however, were that we were not to leave the departure gate as we might be called to board an alternative flight at any moment. The reality of military travel is that often you will wait hours (if not days) for transportation, only to be given three minutes to board a plane or bus once the vehicle arrives; and if you are not present to board the craft due to an irresponsible absence brought on by attending to such trivial personal desires such as an urgent need to void or to procure a sandwich for your only meal of the day, the transportation simply leaves without you.
Finally, mercifully, at 12:30 – after 6 ½ hours of waiting for a flight – our surly “flight coordinator” confirmed that we had no transportation that Thanksgiving Day, and excused us with instructions to grab our luggage from the pallet on the flight line and return the following morning at 06:00. This time I remembered the advice often given surgery residents to help them survive their demanding clinical training regimen: Sleep when you can, eat when you can, make love when you can, and don’t f--- with the pancreas. General Order #1 forbids most sexual intercourse in theatre, and I had no intention of opening anyone’s belly to play with the potentially self-autolyzing organ that is the human pancreas; but I was very tired and I was very hungry, so I made my way to the transient billeting office anticipating a pleasant Thanksgiving nap followed by a proper holiday meal. I had no intention of hauling both a backpack and my large duffle bag around that day and early the next morning; so I removed my sleeping bag from the duffle and left the remainder of my belongings under a tent outside the terminal, thinking that I likely would retrieve them the next morning, but not really concerned that my government-issued winter gear might disappear overnight. I looked like a sad, green, slightly underweight, hang-dog Santa Claus as I walked to the billeting office with the unfurled sleeping bag hanging over my shoulder, a few items for the night lending it only the slightest girth.
Even though I had logged only a minimum of intermittent and fitful sleep the past thirty hours, I opted for a Dairy Queen mushroom cheeseburger before I passed out, as I imagined in horror that I might sleep through the base dining hours and awaken late at night famished and without any meal options. (Those who know me well know that my greatest fear is not poverty or death, but sustained hunger.) I also remembered the advice for the budding surgeons: Eat when you can. Some of you might be surprised to learn that American fast food chains such as Diary Queen have outlets on bases in Afghanistan. Let me assure you that these restaurants – usually trailers painted with the familiar chain symbols and logos – often are similar in name only to their counterparts found on US soil. One Pizza Hut I recently visited offered mozzarella that tasted like fish; and the Dairy Queen near my tent produced a burger smothered in an herbed cheese with the consistency and taste of Elmer’s glue mixed with horseradish. The cheese concoction, when it dripped off my burger, literally bonded together several of my French fries.
The dreadful meal at least provided the sustenance for which my body, very unaccustomed to fewer than four meals per day, had been crying since early in the morning. The beef and fried potato glue ball in my stomach also absorbed the last bit of energy I possessed that afternoon, and I crawled into my winter weight sleeping bag without realizing until I awoke a few hours later that the temperature of the tent approached 95° F. When I suddenly found myself conscious but simmering in a profuse sweat, I thought that perhaps one of the low-flying jets overhead had released fuel on me and my tent mates. I realized quickly, however, that I smelled like the mat from a summer wrestling camp, not a gas pump; and only then did I notice the hot breeze circulating within the tent. The roasting air which had turned the tent into the world’s largest convection oven emanated from two cylinders, one at each end of the rectangular tent, that were almost two feet in diameter and reminded me of the spouts of the snow machines found at ski resorts; although instead of spewing frozen precipitation, these pipes belched heat.
Of course I had not brought a towel with me to the transient tent, or any other implement suitable for mopping the sweat off myself, so I stepped outside in my boxer shorts and prayed the cold, dry Afghan air would evaporate the solid sheen of perspiration I was carrying before it froze into an ice casing. Because women and other horrified personnel walked by the tent, I couldn’t stand outside barely covered for long. So I went back inside, recalled that it was Thanksgiving Day, confirmed that it was dinner time and a holiday meal awaited me at a base dining facility, and slipped my uniform over my still moist frame. As I made my way to the turkey, I stopped at a latrine trailer and dried with paper towels what skin I could reach underneath my uniform.
I must have been in a foul mood, or simply lacking the appropriate holiday spirit, because I have to report that I found the façade of a Thanksgiving meal and celebration constructed by KBR, the food contractor, both depressing and irritating. The turkey offered was the same processed variety we see weekly, with curiously identical slices segregated only by light or dark meat. I instead opted for a slice of beef called Steamship Round, which was a Chevy-sized chunk of meat impaled with a large bone. It looked very similar to what I often encounter when I lunch with Afghans, except the Steamship was much larger than the “leg of something” that the Afghans typically serve. It tasted similar, however. The dining room was littered with paper Thanksgiving decorations that gave the entire facility the aura of a very large elementary school cafeteria. A five-piece brass band played such festive holiday tunes as “Hold That Tiger” and “Get Back (to Where You Once Belonged).” I like to engorge myself with hot buttered rolls on Thanksgiving, but I was unable to do that as I couldn’t find the rolls and KBR makes only margarine available.
Probably my fatigue and sour mood fouled the meal more than anything KBR prepared. My repast was certainly the smallest, fastest Thanksgiving dinner I have ever eaten. I really wanted more sleep at that early evening hour anyway, so left the dining hall armed with a couple of cups of ice that I thought I might need later, and returned to my cot in the broiler that was my quarters for more sleep, very pleased that such a festive holiday was almost over.