“Put your gear on. We’re heading out,” Scott says. He wears fatigues with body armor and a P229 pistol on his hip, looking 100% badass in his six foot two inch U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major body.
My driver is a U.S. Air Force Tech Sergeant who wears crazy eyes above a winning boy-next-door sort of smile. As I struggle into my body armor, trying to figure out what the hell to do with all the Velcro and buckles, they shut the substantial back door of the up-armored SUV. I finally climbed in and began fighting
“Don’t worry about that. It’ll just get caught up on something if we get in the shit,” says Crazy Eyes.
I muse about telling them about the training I’d just gone through. I think maybe I might be able to get out if we were in the shit, as he said, but that one second of self-doubt makes me listen to him. After all, he’s the professional. I’m just along for the ride. I’m the package that Scott has promised the U.S. government and my wife that he’ll deliver safely.
They move their weapon status from amber to green, and we begin moving away from the airport around a dozen hair pin turns bound by concrete barriers to keep the great unwashed and explodable masses away. Just last year an SUV similar to the one I was in was almost destroyed when a truck pulled up behind it and detonated as they waited to enter through security. The nature of the entrance changed since then, as has surveillance on the lone road leading to the airport.
Coming in the airport was supposed to be safe.
And it probably was.
But we were going out.
I’d been both dreading and looking forward to this moment for two years, ever since I was told I was going to Afghanistan, if not a lifetime. I hate rollercoasters. I hate fast rides. I hate twists and turns. I hate it when someone else drives. With all of them it’s a lack of control. I understand the psychology of it.
But please explain this psychology -- I was about to be driven from point A to point B along a route with known terrorists who have proven they can blow vehicles up with improvised explosive devices, vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, and suicide bombers and I wasn’t scared. I was freaking excited and a small part of me in the back of my mind told me that I really should be a little more worried. But I wasn’t. My crazy Tech Sergeant knew how to drive and my Sergeant Major knew how to guide.
So let me set the scene.
You exit the airport sitting in the backseat of an up-armored SUV.
Four lane streets containing cars parked on either side in places pothole in front of you, sometimes separated by a thin median, but not always. One story buildings and hovels line the sidewalks, teeming with people shopping, talking, going about their everyday business. Like the signs to the businesses themselves, they are multi-colored, sometimes garish and confetti eye candy to the watchful eye. Some of them sit. Some of them stand. Others break into a run. Most don’t even notice you, but you can’t help but stand out. You’re in an up-armored white SUV with tinted windows and antennas jutting like an Armageddon porcupine among a country full of Datsons, Nissans, Toyotas and the like. So they stare. Are they curious? Do they wonder who you are? Do they realize you’re the great evil American, here to eat their children and make the populace the next MTV generation? Are they about to report you to someone down the road for your red, white and blue soul? Look, one has a phone. Are they calling ahead, activating an IED, or checking if the wife wants milk and eggs?
Crazy-eyed driver keys up playlist on the radio.
Heavy metal thrums inside the vehicle drowning out every other sound. Every one that is except—
“Drive,” commands Sergeant Major.
We accelerate to fifty and begin to weave through slower traffic down the Great Massoud Road.
Left side, car pulls in front, we swerve and don’t stop.
“Got it,” says Crazy Eyes.
We zoom past.
Two cars come in from the right at high speed. Looks like they might be trying to block us or just maybe trying to hurry across.
You hold on as the SUV’s tires bite into the Soviet-era concrete on the road, we swerve right, then left, then straight. Whatever the cars are doing, they’re now in our dust.
You notice you’ve been holding your breath.
You can’t help but smile.
The brakes lock for a moment and we all jerk forward as a child crosses in front. We’re stopped. Sitting ducks. On the left squats an Afghani man, wearing black. His body is turned away from us, but his eyes are watching us as he talks into a phone. Damned phones. What’s he saying? Got Milk? Got Eggs? Got Boom?
You jerk back as we accelerate again. You feel like the ass-end of a bullet in CERN’s Large Hadron Collidor. We jerk left. We jerk right. Accelerate. Slow. Accelerate again. You’re on the Afghan Fun Ride.
By now you’re giggling nervously.
“Group of men on left.”
“Trash pile on left.”
“Motorcycle. See it?”
You remember the movie Twister and their exclamation of cow as it flies by in the grasp of a tornado. You half expect for them to say that next.
Then we hit the traffic circle. Dear Great God of Roundabouts, what have you done?
It’s a traffic circle in geometry only. Cars and trucks and bikes and horses pulling carts go around it in both directions. They don’t yield. They don’t slow. It’s chaos and we’re going to die.
Only we don’t.
Tech Sergeant Crazy Eyes shoots through three scant openings, slips past a donkey cart, and next thing you know we’re roaring down another street, barely avoiding being T-boned by a bus. Like the Incredible Hulk through the eye of a needle, we somehow make it through.
Accelerate to seventy miles per hour.
And finally, “cow!”
The SUV bites hard with the breaking in an effort to keep the haggard beast off our hood. We slide by, clipping its tail which snaps nattily back to remove a fly from a lazy eyelid.
Then the school children.
Like emperor penguins they waddle across the road in their white and black school uniforms. What can we do? We can’t ram them. We can’t go around.
Suddenly you’re hyper aware of everything around you. You can feel the ticking of the engine like knocks on your heart.
A child laughs.
The sounds of their childhood are like heat rounds shooting towards you.
A car honks behind you.
“I don’t like this,” says Crazy Eyes.
You think to yourself, Fuck, if he’s worried then you should be too.
But the sergeant major calms you. “Easy now.”
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As the music changes to Nickleback’s Animals, and you get to the line where the devil needs a ride, you see the children are gone, and you’re accelerating and the song might be about anything at all, even sex inside a car, but you don’t care because the beat matches the speed you’re going and the way the people and trees whip past the SUV makes you feel like you’re moving even faster. While your right hand is on the oh shit handle, your left is tapping to the beat on your left leg. You’re two parts of the same being. The right part of you is scared while the left isn’t.
You notice the increased presence of police in gray uniforms carrying AKs. You feel safe.
“See those guys with the AKs?” the Sergeant Major asks.
“Yes,” you say.
“They don’t like us. Watch out for them,” he says.
Watch out for them? Like now? Serously? Those police right there with the AKs?
Then we pass a building under construction. It’s going to be big whatever it is.
“They’re building a Hilton there,” the Sergeant Major says, playing tour guide.
“Shit’s going to get blowed the fuck up,” Crazy Eyes says channeling Nostradamus and Bobcat Gothwait.
You can’t help but laugh. Not at the idea of a hotel getting blown up. Never that. Instead, you’re laughing at the casualness such a thing can be called. Like when someone sees a professed redneck pouring moonshine onto a lit BBQ grill and saying, watch this. Doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out what’s going to happen. Or like when a hotel chain builds a hotel near the site of where the last one was destroyed and within 13 months of America pulling out of Afghanistan.
Shit’s going to get blowed the fuck up.
“We’re here,” says Crazy Eyes.
Sergeant Major leans across the seat and turns to you. “Welcome to the Green Zone.”
You feel giddy. You feel sad. The ride is over. Part of you is happy and part of you wants to do it again. And part of you wants to fling open the car door and throw yourself to the ground thanking the Great God of Cannonball Runs that you’re shit didn’t get blowed up.
But then all those parts become one and you realize you’ve done something no one back home can every appreciate. No essay or book or story or late night yarn will ever be able to convey the sheer joy and fear you felt simultaneously. It’s something where you just have to be there to know. It’s something that you survive, and in the surviving, you become a part of the club that understands such things.
* * *
For more of my Afghanistan stories, click here for a list.
Also be sure to check out Gravitas, which is a free short story and audio story at NightMare Magazine for a limited time.