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Outward Bound – Boundary Waters Dog Sledding Journal

Boundary Waters – Day 1: Great Team/Group

Boundary Waters Veteran Dog Sledding Group – March 2020

Our instructors seem nice and genuinely happy to be here. The veterans all seem very laid back and, surprisingly, there does not seem to be an overbearing alpha personality in the groupSteve 2 and I volunteered to get into the river as part of a hypothermia training scenario. I only lowered down to my stomach but the water did not seem that cold despite the ice and snow. I actually felt warm afterward as the other members worked to keep us warm. We shuffled inside and changed into dry clothes.

Steve getting wrapped up after our plunge

The instructors issued us gear for the rest of the night and did their best to ensure we would have everything needed for the upcoming trip. We are all nervous about life after class as COVID-19 continues to spread and our lives change on a daily basis. I know it sounds a bit entitled since we all essentially chose to be here (over paying for cancellation of everything that was purchased for us), but the idea of the world becoming unrecognizable to us by the time we are done with this class and having no real contact to the outside world until then, is a little terrifying. I thought of how expedition leaders hundreds of years ago must have felt the same when leaving for multi-year explorations with little to no communication. We all slept out on the porch as our last dry-run with our new gear before heading out tomorrow.

Notes:

  • Darick – Collects first copy prints of books, like $30k for an original print Walden.
  • Bill (part of original Duluth crew) – Likeable, screwed up his back in a Humvee wreck, was hit by a drunk driver recently and is afraid his back will not allow him to finish the class.
  • Steve (part of original Duluth crew) – Is into marketing, the first person to talk to me on this trip, while we were waiting for a shuttle in Minneapolis.
  • Steve 2 – Goat farmer … loves dogs, interested in climbing Rainier.

Boundary Waters – Day 2: Skiing

Not a long day today, picked out our dogs, drove to drop-off site, rigged up sleds and dogs, and skied about 6 miles. I pulled a pulk with weird plastic bindings that caused my heel to constantly pop out of the binding (kind of looked like a plastic Kinder binding where boot get strapped down). Skis were wax-less and immediately I could tell they were going to be sticky. It was very difficult to get any glide due to the warm temps. I would shuffle and try to kick off the 1 inch of snow that frequently accumulated on my skis but that only allowed me to barely glide for about 20 feet or so before the problem began all over again. My bindings came undone about a dozen or so times until Neal, one of our instructors rigged a bungee cord on them to keep them on. Combination of the snow conditions causing me to randomly stick to snow on downhills, pulk pushing me around, and weird binding put me on my ass a few times. Everyone gave up skiing before we reached camp and either walked in skis or undid their skis and carried them while walking through snow. It was a very frustrating day.

Neal looking back to see if I have fallen on my ass again

On the positive side the day was short, and we arrived into camp around 1PM, which allowed us plenty of time to get all of our work done prior to dinner. We all immediately went to work gathering and processing wood, caring for the dogs, and setting up shelters. Camp is on the North side of a moderate sized lake (August Lake perhaps) that we crossed. Weather is nice, spent most of the day only wearing 2 layers. Getting some alone time with Steve, Bill and Darick.

Bill and I processing wood

I spent a lot of time with a dog named Fleetwood who is black, quiet and very sweet. She is an Alaskan Inuit and one of the 2 dogs that I helped load into the truck-kennel. Her demeanor sets her apart from most of the other dogs. Darick, Bill, Steve and I all slept with “Fry Pan” one of the lead dogs, and ended up laughing our asses off for a good 5-10 minutes prior to falling asleep.

Meeting Fleetwood

Post note: I did not know it then but Darick, Bill, Steve and I had already established our little group and would do most everything together for the rest of the trip.

Boundary Waters – Day 3: Dog Sledding

I finally got to dog sled! It seemed fairly straight forward to control speed and stop. The dogs are unbelievably eager to get to pulling. It seems that the only things they care about in the world are eating and pulling. I have to shout to my two lead dogs “Sunbeam … Fry Pan … ready dogs … let’s go” and they immediately take off. It’s worth noting that for some reason the “let’s go” has to be in a high pitch voice, which evolved to become more and more ridiculous each time I say it. There is a dog-fight early on while we are harnessing dogs that leads to “Grey Jay” getting a nasty gash on his nose and bleeding everywhere. “Fry Pan” was also involved and though it looked like she was okay she began limping heavily midway through the day (a long 8-10 mile day in thick snow with sleds full), and she began stopping altogether which caused the other dogs to quit. I brought this to the attention of Neal, who discussed the situation with Nora (most dog-savvy instructor) and they decided to strap her to the back sled and replace her with another dog. There were 4-6 other dog fights and for some reason Fleetwood was often involved as the aggressor. Steve and I had to push the sled quite a bit as the dogs were getting gassed and the trail was rutted out with sharp uphills and little run-offs. I even drove the sled over Steve a little when I was trying to get it back on the trail by applying the brake (in powder) while telling to dogs to pull. Lesson learned there. We learned toward the end of the day would could keep from running off course a little on the sharp downhills by stomping down on one side of the drag brake and standing on the inside skid and leaning. Funny that it took us this long to figure this out. Part of the reason why we were experimenting with steering was because our strongest pull-dog, “Papa” in the back was consistently pulling us off and to the right even if the low and easy path was left, possibly just by his strength and position on the rope.

Beautiful sledding across a frozen lake to begin the day

Once we arrive to camp I spend a little time setting up shelters and then process wood with Bill and eventually Steve. The instructors have gone out their way to get to know many of the students so far.

We set up a large expedition style canvas tent with a wood stove and that is where the cooking is done. Once dinner is ready we all piled into the smokey, steaming hot tent and eat, and then the typical, nightly, why are you here questions came out. Today’s question was what three things are going great back home and what three things aren’t. The smoke is burning my eyes so I just close them and kind of sit and listen quietly as everyone takes turns talking about things they are struggling with. Steven (non-Ukrainian) puts himself out there by talking about some of the post war things he is dealing with and how it is causing distance between him and his immediate family. He says he has difficulty with nit-picking imperfections at home. Sadly I can relate to most of this. It is very honest moment and no one really knows what to say. After a moment of silence I offer my answers:

Three things going well:

  1. I am at a position at work now, due to tenure where I pretty much get to choose what I want to work on
  2. Small things like a wonderful bouldering trip with Jade last summer up in New England. For some reason a couple of particular moments from this trip are replayed heavily.
  3. My wife and I have been married a long, long time and I pretty much get to do anything I want to when many of my friends do not have any such freedom.

Three things not going well:

  1. I need a better relationship with Logan. I talk about how fun our Boston trip was.
  2. I miss riding my motorcycles, like really miss riding them.
  3. I am not sure I am happy in my job. I know it sounds cliche but sitting down all day really does not make me happy. I often dream about working for forest services or as a ranger if pay was not a concern. I even stare out of my window at the construction workers building shit in the snow and get jealous, which is just ridiculous.

Notes: Darick, Bill, Steve and I are getting along great. I have had little to no communication with Ashley or the twins. Today Logan had to step outside the canvas tent to drop second pant layer to dry out/cool down and he came back in with his outer pants around his ankles and said “Don’t look at me … I’m hideous”.  The way he said this was pretty damn funny. Logan skied out with “Grey Jay” and “Fry Pan” so they can be evacuated and in “Grey Jay’s” case, retired (I think). 2 new dogs (“Wednesday” and another are brought it)

At one point of time one of the instructors whipped out the surprise of the night, a jar of salsa to throw on our dinner. Everyone spontaneously erupted to a loud cheer of “SALSAAAAAAA” which kind of caught the instructors off guard. The told us that they cannot recall such an animated reaction to any of the treats they have offered in the past, let alone salsa. I was just glad it wasn’t just me who broke the silence by shouting.

Boundary Waters – Day 4: Solo

It is finally solo day. We gathered around early and the instructors did everything they can do to make sure we wouldn’t kill ourselves, and remind us half a dozen times not to blow our whistles unless life, limb, or eyes are in jeopardy. Many of the vets are pretty nervous about setting off on their own. I know Darick and I have been looking forward to it and are completely at ease. I imagine Ashley is as well. I grabbed a bunch of birch bark (we were told this is great kindling) to use as fire-starter and showed a few others where they can find some.

Weather was still great, probably in the 20’s with small flakes falling from time to time. Very peaceful. We headed out and I got dropped off in an alcove on the lake Southeast of where we slept the night before (I am on the North shore of Omaday Lake). Wolf tracks ran right through my camp and the silence was deafening. I had not realized how loud 16 dogs and 11 people have been over the last 3-4 days.

Wolf tracks

First thing I did was shit. I know, not something you want to hear about but I could write an entire blog post about the tranquility of that shit. I farmed a bunch of snowballs and stashed them by my “shitter” in case I needed them in the future. This turned out to be a great idea. After I did my business I built my shelter using a tarp, some twine, 2 poles and truckers hitches. It was a pretty simply setup off under some pine trees. We were told it is going to snow/sleet so I wanted to take advantage of the trees. Kind of funny for some reason a bowline was easier for me to tie than a trucker hitch.

Home for the night

It is good to be alone. No, it is GREAT to be alone. We have had little to no time to ourselves since the trip began because there is always something to do and somewhere to go. The work and movement itself is not hard, but the breakneck go-go-go pace of everything really makes me appreciate me not having to do a damn thing now. I am confident in my shelter, confident in my skills, and I can spend the next 18-20 hours or so doing whatever I damn well please.

Songs rang through my head in the silence. I gathered firewood for a while and decided to lay down in my shelter. I ended up taking a short nap. It dawns on me that today we are the dogs. Each night we chain the dogs up wherever we camp using ice screws and metal guy wire. I noticed the first night that they are chained so that they are just out of reach of each other and find that a little odd. I wonder if they would not like to lay together in the cold. Now we (the vets) are all out of reach of each other and I totally get it and no longer feel sorry for the dogs at night.

I woke up from my nap and sat around a bit before eating the 3 Jolly Ranchers given to me by our instructors. I laid on my back in the snow while eating my last Jolly Rancher and began to doze off again. This was not the best idea. I was so utterly comfortable, content, and relaxed I damn near choked to death. When I woke up in a panic from said choking, I thought of how funny (okay morbidly funny) it would be for the OB crew to have to explain to my family that I had choked on something when I was out by myself and died. I figured they would issue an Outward Bound policy to all instructors that participants would only be allowed life savers in the future. This made me laugh to myself a little.

I spent more time processing wood and building a fire platform. After a little while I headed over to my shelter to pass out for a proper nap. This was one of the best naps I have had in a long, long time. I awoke around 16:00 to the sound of Logan asking me how I was doing and if I wanted a dog. I told him that I wasgreat and that I would like Fleetwood if possible since she was so bitchy yesterday.

Firewood processed, and fire roaring

I fought the urge to begin a to-do list. I am not exaggerating when I write that. I can’t help but to think something must be wrong with me. We haven’t had any time to ourselves until today, and my thoughts raced uncontrollably from topic to topic. I am afraid of not being “in the moment” again. I think about the end of the trip and how I am just going to blink and it will all be over, and I will be sitting on a bus, shuttling to the Minneapolis airport wearing my “I came, I saw, I OB’d shirt”. I always have a tendency to look ahead to the end of whatever I am doing. I am in the process of re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Pirsig really hammers home the folly of not being attentive to the now. In short the journey really is the destination. These thoughts made me want to write more to preserve my thoughts and feelings throughout the trip.

I also thought about COVID-19 and what is happening to the world while we are all off-grid. It presents an “I think I left the stove on” feeling that just does not go away. I never know when the thought will pop up during the trip but it does so, repeatedly without warning. I take a little comfort in knowing that everyone else is coping with this too.

I headed to the lake to get my fire going. It was ridiculously easy to start with Birch bark. Right before I put my food on Logan appeared with Fleetwood. I took a video of her arrival and tied her to a tree. I boiled my pots of water and cook the Ramen, veggies, and sausage that was provided to us and relaxed a little while eating and drinking my tea. I had saved about half of my firewood to put back for future Outward Bounders but about 10 minutes into relaxing I convince myself that we are probably the last winter group that will come through here until late next year, and that there is more than enough downfall and dead branches to sustain campers for years to come. A poem pops into my head …

“Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I did my very best to burn a hole to the bottom of the lake. I ended up with a 5 foot wide 30″ deep crater I would have to fill in the morning. The following day I was told by a handful of people that they could see my fire from across the lake.

After tending to my fire, I cleaned up, brushed my teeth, fed Fleetwood her lard, and led her over to the shelter area. I was able to tie her up so she could sleep right next to me without any risk of her peeing on my gear. This day was everything I imagined the trip to be. I closed my eyes and fell asleep to the gentle sound of snowflakes on my tarp.

Boundary Waters – Day 5: Last Night Out

I slept pretty well last night, only occasionally waking up to see Fleetwood starring at me. It took me about 30 minutes to pack up and head over to the group campsite where we had a big breakfast waiting on us.

Fleetwood and I heading back to camp

After eating I was treated to skijoring for the first time, which was absolutely wonderful. The snow that had fallen over the last couple of days had made the ski conditions much more favorable. It felt a little foreign to fight keeping my balance as a sled dog pulled me along but I started getting a feel for it and relaxed a little toward the end of my 5 minute run.

I could get used to this

I knew we were looking at a short, last night out and was looking forward to getting another shot at skiing, perhaps with better conditions. We packed up camp and headed out and immediately I felt the kick and glide I had grown accustomed to in Colorado. I was not pulling a sled this time around so I really got to hang back and take pictures when I wanted to, and just glide along through the wonderful, peaceful Minnesota woods. This was one of the 2-3 ah-ha this is what I signed up for moments. I was on cloud 9. I was so happy that I paused for a short while for my only selfie of the trip. I wanted to remember that moment, and being in that moment.

Wonderful ski day

The rest of our last ski day was fun, quiet, and relatively uneventful. I did get to talk to Ashley briefly and to no surprise, beneath the guarded exterior was a very intelligent and ridiculously capable person. I think most everyone knew this already. She was a Hahvahd grad would had recently summited Denali, and I think Aconcagua in the past. She had been waist deep in adventure for quite a while.

We eventually made our way to a little alcove on a river a few miles from base camp. The center (moving) portion of the river was not frozen. It was a quiet little spot, shielded from the wind with a good view across the ice. We didn’t need to concern ourselves as much with firewood gathering and processing since we had amassed and pulled quite a load on one of the dog sleds. We still had to tend to our dogs, make sure they were happy, chained, fed, and healthy, and setup our shelters. I volunteered to help cook for the first time which meant I could sit around the fire and prepare food. For the life of me I cannot recall what I cooked but I recall it being with Darick.

Cooking duty aint bad

We gathered around the fire when the food was ready, ate, answered our question of the day and laughed and conversed. I recall Neal busting out some form of snack/dessert and all of us getting a little excited. The sun set across the river in dramatic fashion and the temperature lowered quickly. I took my watch off and hung it on one of the tent guy-lines for a reading. After dinner we ran around camp to warm up prior to jumping into our sleeping bags. Typically routine.

Fire and a sunset

Boundary Waters – Day 6: Heading Back to Base Camp

When I awoke the next morning my watch read 6 degrees F. Not insanely cold by any shake of the stick, but colder than anything we had experienced thus far. We all quickly huddled around the fire for breakfast and fed our dogs. I think we all were very conscious that we would be back to base camp within a few hours, with beds, bathrooms, running water, and technology. We were told the travel for the day would be about 3 miles.

It was my last day dog sledding. I had learned a little, gotten better at steering for sure. Steve was joyfully running along and filming everything. As we approached base camp we turned onto a packed, snowy road. This is where it became somewhat hard to stop the dogs, okay actually impossible to stop them alone. Up until this point Steve would jump off and go take pictures and I could dig my arms under the sled frame to shove the brake teeth into the snow and stop them easily. The first time Steve stepped away on this road the dogs, probably sensing they too were close to home, took off. I stood and pulled up as hard as I could on the brake and even tried applying another foot on the drag brake, and they just drug me along like it was nothing. Steve was able to jump on and help me stopped them before things got out of hand.

Approaching the kennels

Once we reached the Kennels we had to secure the dogs, provide one last health and welfare check for each of them, and then take them back to their spot in the yard. This was an oddly sentimental moment since we all knew we would not see them again. After dropping off the dogs we headed over to base camp to turn in all of our gear, and to dry out everything we had taken, which was a lengthy and involved process.

Base Camp

We all had a few minutes to check with family on our phones. Laura and the kids were doing fine. I really didn’t have a lot of time to catch up with them. I am not sure if I learned then or later that Steve had a friend who had died of COVID-19 while we were out. Apparently his last words were, “I just don’t want to die”.

Eventually we made our way back down to the river and sauna, where we would jump into the icy cold river wearing wool socks, and then shiver and shuffle our way over to the sauna for about 30 minutes before repeating the process. This was a surprisingly comfortable evolution, and it was quite relaxing. We all did about 5 round prior to heading back to base camp for a shower. On the last round I challenged myself and others to stay under for about 10 seconds (head and everything), which sound insanely easy. After playing with Wim Hoff stuff for a while I was able to hold my breath for about 3 minutes last year, which is good for me. The second your head went under that cold water though you could just feel the air being sucked out of you as every muscle in your body tensed up. Add to that the unsettling feeling of drifting down the river a little, and it was genuinely hard to stay under just 10 seconds.

Wish my mother was here for this

The shower and dinner that followed were nothing short of heavenly. I was pretty dingy after 5 days of smoke, sweat, and grit. Having a hot meal and dessert was great too. After eating we were introduced to a couple of other teams who had just returned from being out in the sticks, including a group of teenagers who had been out for about 60 days I think. We were tasked with doing dishes for everyone, and it was kind of funny to see how effortlessly we self-organized to knock that out.

At some point of time we returned to the dog yard for our final ceremony. We were asked what we took away from the course, told that we all passed, and asked if we would award ourselves with an pin symbolizing excellence. We were all told to close our eyes and hold out our hands if we thought we were deserving. After this we were told to explain our decision to either take or turn down the pin. A couple of people shared a similar answer with me, that excellence is really the best of the best, statistical outliers, etc. I believed I came in with a wealth of experience yet even with that experience only performed adequately. It was an interesting question. To this day I do not know if I grasp the philosophical depths of our answers. Maybe people like me are just destined to wander through life thinking we have not achieved excellence in anything? Have I achieved excellence in anything (volleyball)? I know I am good at a lot of things, but good cannot hold a candle to excellent. I snuck out to take a picture of some of the dogs and of the shack we huddled in. Right then and there I was struck by the realization that we would be back in our airport shuttles en route to returning to family and COVID-19 tomorrow.

The dog shack

Boundary Waters – Day 7: Returning Home

The shuttle ride back to the airport was similar to the shuttle ride in. We all had our own conversation groups and I spent most of my time trying to replay the whole experience while soaking in the Minnesota scenery as it whizzed by. I had no idea when I would be back.

Once we arrived at the Duluth airport I raced off to charge my phone so I would have some sort of entertainment as I traveled all day. I kind of liked the Duluth airport, even though is was incredibly tiny.

I see what you did there MN

Once through security I purchased a couple of things and hung out briefly with Martin, a straggler from one of the other groups. He told me he was from San Fransisco and that his mother was worried. A few days later we would get call from the Outward Bound director so he could inform us that Martin was presumptive positive and that we should all self isolate/quarantine as if we were too. It turned out Martin did not have COVID-19 but it gave me a little bit of a scare since I had minor cold-like symptoms.

I split once and for all from everyone at the Minneapolis Airport. There the Buffalo Wild Wings employees were so happy to see me (they were all just sitting in the dining area at a table without customers, cooks and all) that they gave me a bunch of free food and sat around me and talked about the trip and Coranavirus. Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs airports were equally desolate. I wore a handkerchief over my mouth and nose and received some funny looks through my travel that day. A couple of weeks later and my handkerchief/mask look would be required by Colorado for leaving the house.

R.I.P. J.D. Salinger

AfghaniStan Diego

Chapter3; The Portal to Hell Opens and Reveals an 8th Layer

I was lying across two uncomfortable seats in the TERMINAL. No matter which way I turned the metal frames of each seat dug into my ribs and back. I thought of all of the stories I had read of the ridiculous horrors refugees suffered to free themselves from tyranny: Afghan’s fleeing their country inside of petroleum tankers, Jews hiding in the sewer to avoid concentration camps, Romanians living in trees for weeks. In my little TERMINAL world I was one of them. I was living in a God-forsaken shithole, where the temperature was always just a little too cold, where there was no comfortable position whatsoever (how is that even possible), and where somehow the news just kept getting worse. I was hungry and in desperate need of a shower, yet could not leave for fear that I would miss the smallest of opportunities, the passing of the eye of the shit storm.

I concentrated on the most random things to take my mind off of the situation. I meditated on the word “TERMINAL” much like Persig obsessed over the word “Quality”.

TERMINAL
–adjective
1. Situated at or forming the end or extremity of something.
2. Occurring at or forming the end of a series, succession, or the like; closing; concluding.
3. Pertaining to or lasting for a term or definite period; occurring at fixed terms or in every term.
4. Pertaining to or placed at a boundary, as a landmark.
5. Occurring at or causing the end of life.
6. Informal. Utterly beyond hope, rescue, or saving.

–noun
7. A TERMINAL part of a structure; end or extremity.
8. A station on the line of a public carrier, as in a city center or at an airport, where passengers embark or disembark and where freight is received or discharged.
________________________________________
Origin:
1480–90; late ME < L terminālis, equiv. to termin(us) end, limit + It was obvious from studying the WORD that I had about a 50% chance of surviving the situation with my brain intact. My TERMINAL could have simply been a means to a new beginning, a prelude, and the end of a horrible extremity. It could pertain to a definite period (*this cannot go on forever*), a misery that would eventually end. My TERMINAL very well could be the boundary between me and a very happy reunion with my wife, children and parents. For whatever reason visuals of the other two TERMINALs lingered in my head along with the sickening feeling that my visit to this TERMINAL would bring forth the end of my life, and that no amount of optimism could restore a situation so far beyond hope, rescue, or saving. Somewhere along the line of deep thought, I collapsed on the freezing concrete floor and fell asleep.

I was awake, or at least conscious. I could hear people talking and feel the arctic air blasting out of the vent above me but for some strange reason I could not see. I reached up to my eyes to try to pry my eyelids open. They felt as if they had been Gorilla-Glued together. I spent a few minutes digging the sleepy out before I could finally force my eyes open, ripping out several eyelashes in the process. It was 10:00 AM. The newest group of TERMINAL employees had arrived, and one of them informed me that they had failed in attempting to fix the back hatch of my plane. The good news however, was that H.W was leaving this shit hole, so when a plane became available, I would be one of the first people on it. She told me to hang around because we would be re-palletizing our bags soon. I got up, stretched, walked to the restroom, lathered up my hands and face with soap and scrubbed away. I stepped out feeling surprisingly clean and refreshed. I walked around for a little bit to lube up my legs and back, as they had become quite stiff from my little nap. I noticed a pot of fresh coffee and a few half-stale bear claws. I gobbled a couple of them down, and sipped on my coffee/oil concoction while simultaneously heating my hands through the Styrofoam. Shortly afterward another Airman walked into the terminal and told us to go to the baggage area and move our bags over from one pallet to another. We all did so in a slow, deliberate fashion. A few of us hung around outside for a short period of time just to get a change of scenery. After about 30 minutes, we were cold enough to return to our front row seats to the play “Hell Unfolding”. A woman with a high pitched voice called for our attention over the intercom and casually informed us that our flight would be leaving at 17:00. It was 12:00.

I decided I would once again take advantage of the USO’s amenities across the street. I chatted with my wife for s short while via GChat, and inhaled 3 mini-bags of popcorn. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” was playing on the big screen, and since I had seen it before I figured it would be a great time to catch up on much needed rest. Yup, you know what is coming … brace for impact.

I woke up at 14:30 with a crick in my neck. I stood up, looked around, and immediately wondered why the 100 or so people that littered the couches and reclining chairs before I fell asleep had dwindled down to a mere 20. I felt a bit nervous as I walked across the street to the terminal. The feeling I felt then was sickening at best. I think it may be best explained by likening it the feeling you get when you become detached from your mother or father at the grocery store when you are very young; pure, sweat-inducing panic. As I turned the corner to enter the TERMINAL I came face to face with a horrible sight I recently thought I would never see; emptiness. Rush Limbaugh’s conscious wasn’t as empty as this. Britney Spears’ life had more content. All of my partners in hell were gone. All of their things were gone with them. At that moment a woman walked up to me briskly with a sobering look on her face and asked, “Are you Kramer”? “Yes”, I replied. She then informed me that the plane had arrived very early and literally left the runway 5 minutes earlier. She told me that had been looking for me for about 45 minutes, and that they had even sent someone over to the USO. I suppose there is no point in discussing the shitty job that person did in attempting to find me. She looked at me with pity and told me that all of my bags were on the plane, and that I would have to wait until tomorrow morning to catch a flight in hope of reuniting myself with them. I can only imagine the expression she saw. At that moment I was tearing up from the purest breed of rage. I had difficulty hearing anything over the sound of my own heart beating at a ridiculous pace. My throat hurt, my head hurt, and I thought my eyes were going to pop out. It had been a while since I had been dealt such a devastating emotional blow. She saw a horrific potential in me (where is the nearest clock-tower???) and quickly decided to sit down next to the seat I had taken at some point of time during her speech (by this point I was doing things before I realized I was doing them) and told me “not to worry” and that “these things happen all the time”. After a few seconds of silence she said “Your bags will be there when you land. Why don’t you just try to get some rest and be sure to be here by 07:00 tomorrow morning.”

I decided to walk around the base for a little while in an attempt to calm myself down and to analyze my situation rationally. I eventually decided that it would be wisest to sit down, have a huge meal, shower, and catch up on my sleep. I couldn’t help but to be conscious of the fact that I was freezing. The high temperature was only 27 degrees and all I had on was a t-shirt covered by a light-weight fleece jacket, and a 5-point cover (all Army issued). After eating I made my way over to the PX to buy some toiletries, black knit cap that said “Bagram” across the front, a towel, some sandals, underwear and some new under-shirts. I opted out of purchasing a new razor and shaving cream strictly to save money. The undershirts were long sleeved and extremely thick, a godsend. I also decided to buy an Afghani scarf to tuck into my fleece jacket in an attempt to warm my neck and face. I couldn’t resist purchasing a very cute one-piece wool dress for Ra. I realized as long as I kept thinking about her and the kids my TERMINAL would simply be a landmark, a means to a better future.

I shuffled over to the nearest shower and lost myself in it. I was like a redneck at a monster truck show, experiencing the very essence of Heaven itself. Andy Dufresne didn’t shower like that after escaping Shawshank. It was unbelievable. I am ashamed to admit that it very well may be years before Afghans have access to hot water again after my little excursion. I felt relaxed and at ease. I made my way back over to the R&R tent and smiled each time I encountered a puzzled face, or the statement “you are still here”? I examined my comically soiled short sleeve undershirt, and decided I would once again make light of the situation. It took a while but I eventually found a black permanent marker and carefully stenciled “Bagram R&R Flight Cancellation Count: VI”. I spent a few minutes parading around while wearing it and was instantaneously the talk of the tent. Eventually I settled in the corner of the tent, opposite of the Sun’s blow dryer, and immediately fell into the deepest of sleep.

Tuesday, 18 December (06:00 AM)

It was 0530. My watch had been chirping at me for 30 minutes. I shuffled through the ice over to the DFAC, and grabbed a quick wholesome breakfast. I decided to double up on my long sleeve undershirt while waiting for the bus. In a moments time I would be back within ITS walls and boundaries and I would not be ill-prepared.

I walked in and was immediately approached by an employee who smiled and asked if I was finally ready to go home. She informed me that the plane was parked right outside, and that I would soon be leaving Bagram to rejoin my luggage. I spent the majority of the morning soaking in the deafening sounds and beautiful sights of Prowlers taking off and wondering why again I did not pursue a commission as a Navy Flight Officer. I decided in the event of another flight cancellation that I would ask the front desk for a black sharpie, lift up my fleece jacket and etch another “I” on my R&R cancellation shirt right in their presence. Perhaps because I was looking forward to it, the opportunity never arose. 4 Hours later I was in the air, flying out of Afghanistan.

The flight was long, and dark, and we all had to wear a heavy Kevlar helmet, and our 70 pound IBA’s which only go midway down our backs. Several planes had been peppered by .762 caliber firearms in the past few months during the process of taking off and landing. The armor was not an option. The reprieve I felt from moving forward in my journey did go a long way in masking all pains or discomforts, but I challenge you to sit perfectly upright for 5 hours with 70 pounds on your shoulders using a back support that only extends down to the middle of your back. The 130 or so people on the plane were squirming, and readjusting, and moaning, and moving, and doing anything else they could to keep their minds of their misery. I certainly felt it to. My back had tightened up so bad that I actually feared standing up when we arrived. Still, I am fairly certain the smile never left my face throughout the entire flight. I had won a major victory. Clark Griswald may be getting his bonus after all.

Wednesday, 19 December (01:00 AM)

We landed at Ali Al Salim in Kuwait. We spent 30 minutes on the ground waiting for the buses to come and pick us up. Eventually they arrived and we were instructed to board them. They drove us to the central R&R processing center and let us out. We were herded like cattle from one station to the next. It was 02:00 AM. After receiving our tent assignments and a short orientation, we were told to go to the baggage area to pick up our luggage. I could hardly wait to pick up my bags. I had already identified that minor inconvenience as the last major hurdle between me and my family. As we walked from the briefing tent to the baggage area I was made aware of just how freaking cold Kuwait could get. It was 27 degrees with a brisk 25mph headwind. Sand was blowing everywhere. Here I was at sea-level freezing my ass of when only a couple of weeks ago I was relaxing comfortably at 6000ft altitude in Kabul.

As I arrived at the baggage area I found the nearest employee and explained my situation. He pointed to where my bags were and I was on my way. As I approached the area I noticed there were about 10 “orphaned” bags sitting off by themselves in a corner. At about that time I noticed that none of these bags belonged to me. Again panic, fear, anger, anxiety, and more panic swept over me. I quickly realized that this last hurdle may in fact have been the most damning of them all. I walked as fast as I could through the freezing wind to the person I had spoken with earlier. He told me to go check with the lost baggage representative in tent #2. I was supposed to be attending another brief at that moment, but suffice to say I didn’t really give a shit. The lost baggage representative looked overwhelmed and overworked. It was immediately clear that this was a very common occurrence and even more clear that those who had lost their bags rarely found them. He walked around the tent with me to show me all of the possible places they could be. They may have been brought here, taken to them, stored in this connex, turned into these people. There were literally like 7 places where I may or may not have found my bags, my belongings, my families’ Christmas. I was already appalled at how unorganized things were.

We spent a good 30 minutes wandering around the freezing camp looking for my stuff. He told me to come back and talk to the morning shift representative as it was possible that he handled them himself. Saying he was less than convincing when he spoke would be the understatement of a lifetime. I knew then and there that I had probably lost everything for good. I could waste away 60 pages of writing attempting to explain or illustrate my feelings and thought process at the time. It wouldn’t make a difference. There is no explaining the HATRED that I felt at that moment. I looked down and saw Lucifer cowering at my feet.

I blew off the final briefing all together and decided to walk frantically around base searching for my things. How the fuck could they have been lost on a flight with no layover? They didn’t just fucking vanish. I was seeing black. The wind ripped through everything I wore and caused my eyes to water, which caused me to get even more pissed which cause my eyes to water more. I stopped and wrapped the scarf around my face and donned my Bagram knit cap. I hadn’t shaved in about 4 days and was breaking at least 5 uniform regulations. I dared anybody, anybody to correct me on the matter. I must have walked around for a good hour looking my hardest through teary eyes in every nook and cranny I could find. I had difficulty walking due to the fact that my legs were shivering so violently. I walked into a trailer we were all supposed to stop at before retiring for the morning. Their only purpose was to process you travel packet, and make sure that everything was correct so that SATO would issue the airline ticket you needed. They asked me if I wanted to fly out Thursday night. I suppose any bit of human interaction would have catapulted me into a rage. I snapped back with spite and told him I was not plying out until their two-bit, piece of shit operation located my bags. He looked confused more than anything and told me I had to select a date. I told him to pick Thursday, and that I would show up or not show up as I saw fit. He starred at me with a peculiar expression as I walked out the door. Right as the door was closing I swore I heard younger Army kid say “wah, I don’t wanna go home”. I stood there for a second, opened the door and looked at him to see if I could concur that I had in fact heard that. He just stared at me and I said, “Sorry what was that”? He looked at me with a smile and said “oh nothing”.

Another 30 minutes of walking around watery-eyed, out of uniform, and looking for a confrontation. At some point of time I decided I would walk around and look for my little jester friend. I circled the base many times over imagining what I would do. I was very aware of the consequences of such an action; jail time, and loss of rank, pay and vacation. I really didn’t care. I wanted to get very personal with him in the worst way. I wouldn’t use my gun, or a knife. I figured I would confront him and just go absol-fucking-lutely ape-shit before he even knew what was happening. I imagine choking him with my bare hands. I imagined gouging his eyes, and breaking every bone in his face. I could practically hear the screams, and cracks. I was ready and more than willing to bridge the gap from my former sane self to a new and improved sociopath. His mangled corpse was the only thing that could rid me of the emotions that were slowly destroying my insides. Talk is talk, I get that. Lord knows there are plenty of military talkers; war heroes, former all-state boxes, etc. In a world where everyone is a bonafide bad ass, and where every male swings a 9 incher, I was the person that needed to be feared. I was a wolf in wolfs’ clothing. Had I run into him again, I would have gone out of my way to kill him in the most painful and deliberate way I could. There is no doubt in my mind about that.

I sat in a corner, with my back up against the concrete slab. My face had ice on it from the tears flowing down my cheeks. I was coming down from my fit. I suppose it was only natural. There was no way my body could endure such an adrenalin spike for an extended period of time. In returning to my pseudo-normal self I realized just how close I was to doing something that could have ruined me and my life as I knew it. I thought of my kids visiting me in prison, of my wife moving on with another man, of my parents crying in court, and most importantly, I thought about reaching a mental state that I had thought was entirely unreachable by a rational person. Until that moment I had never really understood serial killers or their hanus crimes. I sat and cried. I cried because I knew deep down inside I was more than capable of doing something that scared the shit out of me.

It may be hard for some to understand the reasoning behind the level of anger/anguish that I was feeling. Let me attempt to rationalize the irrational. First and foremost was the thought of my kids going without Christmas. I had spent months planning what I would buy and make them. It took me well over a month to make one of Jades gifts, a jingle truck filled with over 150 miniature letters explaining why I love her. I had cut out and hand written one for every month of her life through the age of 18 … and it was now gone. To me, it was as if as piece of her was gone. It meant so much to me to give that to her. And now it and all my other gifts were gone. Chunk’s camouflage teddy bear was gone. Throughout my life I had bought my mom a pair of house shoes once every other Christmas. I had an Afghani pair made especially for her. They were gone. I would never see Ra don the outfits I bought for her. The items I bought for my nephews and nieces and sisters, and father, also gone. Jewelry, clothing, and wood carvings, all of high sentimental value were lost. That incident left a scar on me deep enough to for me to justify saving this draft about 20 times in the last hour for fear of losing all my work (2 Months later). Yeah, it was that bad.

Aside from thinking of Christmas, I also had to deal with the fact that over 50% of the world as I knew it was also gone. We have very little space to store anything in theatre or on a ship so we live literally out of a couple of sea-bags. Well all at once, I lost shoes, clothes, toiletries, military issue cold weather gear, boots, an IPOD, a nice backpack, a gyro ball, books, hats, a ton of DVD’s and CD’s and countless other items. Essentially half of the content that made up my temporary home had all vanished. Wilson fell off the raft and was slowly floating away and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

What to do what to do? I figured I could call Ra, and simply hope her voice would bring me back over to the light side of the force, or I could try to get some sleep. I gave Ra a shot. I called her from a TERMINAL phone and had a hell of a time hiding my emotion. Eventually I confided to her that I was scared of my present mental state. She kept asking me if I had already turned my gun in. I distinctly remember something I said in an attempt to calm her down that, in hindsight probably made things much worse. After she asked about my gun I coolly informed her that “I had no intentions of harming myself, and that I did not intend to use my gun to harm those that needed to be harmed, as shooting them would not be personal enough”. The weird thing is that was entirely honest. It was in no way contrived. I believe Ra sensed the state I was in, and honestly I do not think she knew how to react. After I said that, those words echoed through my head, each repetition amplified over the last. I cannot recall the remaining conversation. I don’t know what Ra said afterwards or if she was crying when she said it. I could only hear those words echoing through my head. I had to try to sleep.

I walked to my tent and opened the door. Pitch black, and freezing. I used my watch lamp to determine which racks were occupied. I found a top bunk empty and threw my stuff, (my laptop bag and a small plastic bag) up on top. I climbed up and lay down. There was no pillow, and no sheets or blanket. It only took about 20 minutes before I had to resort to using the mattress as a blanket, lying directly on a sharp, cold grid of springs. I sang to myself “Sleep will not come, to this tired body now. Peace did not come to this lonely heart”. Luckily daylight was only a couple of hours away.

As unbearably hot as my tenure was in Bagram, my stay in Kuwait was equally miserable as its polar opposite (+5 for cunning use of the word “polar”). I again found reprieve in a hot shower. I got to the tent early and asked my friends for information since I had no idea what was put out while I frantically searched the base the night before. I found out I needed to take care of a couple of items, before my out-processing began.

I had every intention of describing the specifics of out-processing when I sat down to write this installment of my saga a few hours ago. Truth is I am emotionally drained now from reliving all of this shit. Out-processing was exactly how one would expect the military to handle it. We were herded around all day like cattle from one location to another. We weren’t people but jobs and numbers. Go here, pack, unpack, walk over there, sign this, next, tent 3, inspection, customs, wait, eat, go here, talk to them, etc. Now that I think about it, it was very similar to my very first military experience; in-processing. I did find time to talk to the morning shift baggage rep, and of course he had no idea what happened to my stuff. He had me fill out a lost baggage report, which they apparently filed away and never looked at again (chapter 4 will discuss this). In between getting branded and neutered, (what else happens to cows before they are killed?) I searched hopelessly for my lost bags. At 20:00 I gave up hope and boarded a bus to head to Kuwait’s civilian airport.

The bus ride was interesting. We were in a cluster of 10-15 expensive, chartered buses. The lights were out, the window curtains were closed, and we were instructed not to peek out no matter what the circumstance.
It kind of reminded me of Ann Frank’s family hiding from Nazi’s. Everyone was very silent. About an hour into the trip we pulled into a guarded area at the airport and the busses came to a stop. We were told to mill around in the sand and use the port-o-johns until our plane was ready for boarding. That took about 45 minutes. Once I stepped foot on the massive 400-seater I was more than ready to close my eyes, and rid myself of the memories of the last 24 hours. It was either that or watch “Ghost Town” for the 126th time in the last 6 months.

Thursday, 20 December (time unknown)

The flight from Kuwait to Germany went by fairly quickly for me since I spent just about every minute either sleeping or eating. As we began our approach to Germany I peeked out the window to see the earth covered in a white sheet. We were lowering very quickly and I couldn’t even see the airport much less the runway. As we got within 50 feet from the Earth I quickly realized that we were landing on an unsalted/unplowed runway. We touched down and within 30 seconds came to a complete halt. That was the first and hopefully last time I land in 6 inches of snow. The flight crew was very nonchalant about the whole situation. I suppose that was just how things were done there.

I exited through the back door of the jet, and walked about 200 yards through moderate snow to board the airport shuttle. It took us around the corner to a TERMINAL and gift shop area. I spent some time snapping photos of the snow as it fell nearly horizontally. After a while I decided I would check out the gift shop. There were a few items there that I was interested in, however everything was ridiculously expensive. A small stuffed animal that would normally be 7 dollars anywhere in the states cost 30 there. I ended up spending a little over 100 dollars on stocking stuffers. Still, it made me feel a little better to attempt to salvage my families’ Christmas. I was getting closer to them, and I wanted to arrive in San Diego without the anger and stress that had plagued me for the last week.

After milling around in Germany for an hour we were herded back onto the shuttle and driven over to our plane. Each person seemed to go out of their way to prolong boarding the plane. Some walked slowly up the stairs, some walked around in the snow, and others just fought their way to the back of the line. We all wanted to go home, but very few of us were excited about the 12 hour flight that lay ahead.
The flight was almost entirely uneventful sans a couple of spells of turbulence. Again I did my best to force myself to sleep, only waking to devour the surprisingly delicious in-flight meals. Eventually I could sleep no longer and I was faced with a dilemma. The Dark Knight was showing on no less than 8 screens within my view, and I needed to do my very best to avoid watching it as I had promised Ra that we would see it together for the first time when I got to San Diego. For a while I stared at the flight information screen (-71 F really???). I quickly bored myself with that and whipped out my new IPOD to watch Donnie Darko. By the time it was over, the Dark Knight was as well. We were a few hours away from Atlanta, and I just wanted the time to pass. Again, I forced myself to sleep.

We landed in Atlanta early Thursday morning. My mind and body felt like it was Friday. Everyone on the plane made a mad dash to get out, collect their stuff and make their way to their connecting flights. I had a hefty advantage in that I did not have to wait to pick up luggage since everything I owned was carry-on. People in the Airport were marveling and beaming with pride as they watched 300 of their countries’ finest filling into airport. Everyone looked so clean and professional, all ready to reunite with their families looking their very best. Then there was me. I was still out of uniform, with my scarf tucked into my jacket, I had two separate boots on, and I hadn’t shaved in about 5 days. I looked like crap. The funny thing was that civilians and military members alike apparently thought I was some sort of Navy Seal or Spec-Ops guy. Nobody said a damn thing to me. Even funnier than that, a warrant officer jumped down the throat of some young Army kid because he was “a week overdue for a haircut”. I was standing right next to him when it occurred. The kid looked at me and then looked back at the warrant and said “yes sir”.

I was one of the first 30 persons processed. As I made my way through yet another security screening the agent looked me over and commented on my appearance by quipping “long flight?” or some such remark. I suppose she saw that I had been through hell. She let me through the checkpoint with a 20oz soda, and many toiletries that were much larger than the allotted limit.

I made my way to my newest TERMINAL, pausing to read the signs overhead. Atlanta to San Diego… this is where I must fight to clear my next hurdle. My connecting flight was not scheduled until the early afternoon. I spoke to a desk worker about swapping tickets for an earlier flight but there was room for standbys only. I signed up and made me way to an internet station. I had to pay 5 bucks for the service but did so happily since I had not had access to internet service faster than dial-up for a very long time. I spoke with some friends, and informed Ra via Gchat that I was finally in the states. For some reason my T-Mobile phone would not pick up a signal, so I could not call her or anyone else.

About 30 minutes passed before the call was made to begin boarding the plane. I kept my eye on the electronic boarding prompter. I was 7th on the standby list and the flight was full. After about 20 minutes of boarding there was no one around but the standbys. I walked up to a young continental employee at the information desk and asked if the standbys could board yet. She looked at me, paused, glanced at my name-tape, and asked if I was going home. I told her that I was. Next thing I knew I was boarding the plane as the only standby.

I sat next to a couple of elderly gentlemen who insisted on discussing anything and everything about the military and the war. They wanted to know what I did, and told me about their neighbors and sons. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I was sick of it all, and that we were technically losing the war. I found out that it was virtually impossible to tell somebody that you are not at liberty to discuss what you do without sounding like a complete James Bond hack-wannabe. I felt a bit uncomfortable from all the “thank you for servings” so I picked up the latest and greatest edition of Skymall and read. Soon enough I would be home.

As we approached San Diego I peered out the window to see that the mountains were covered in snow. I knew we were very close to San Diego because we were dropping altitude very quickly. I must have missed a hell of a snow storm. I spent the final 30 minutes of our flight staring out the window, attempting to identify features I was familiar with. I saw a mountain pop up that looked very familiar. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that it was Mt. Miguel, my mountain biking Mecca that had burnt down a year or so earlier during the wild fires. A couple of minutes later we flew over Petco Park and began to line-up for landing.

Once I was on the ground I walked as fast as humanly possible to get out of the Airport. I think I may have beaten everyone on my flight. I flagged down a Taxi and jumped in. We drove a short two minutes down the road and came to a stop next to my house. I paid him and stepped out of the cab and grabbed my two, pathetically small bags. I paused to reflect and absorb the beautiful sight of my home. Ra swung the front door open and began to walk toward me with a smile.

Thursday, 20 December (12:30 Pacific Time)

It was finally over. I was finally home.

AfghaniStan Diego

Chapter 2; It’s Always Darkest Just Before it Goes Pitch Black

Before I resume the chronicles of my leave misery I must first provide a warning to the hundreds 3 of you who read my blog. This warning should be read similar to the way legal caveats are read in a quiet, crack-cocaine paced manner at the end of a used car sale commercial; ApprovedAPRTaxTitleLicense … SoulMustBeSignedOverToDealer … EventEndsMonday … etc. Before I offer my warning I need to step back a bit and offer a bird’s-eye view of the situation I found myself shortly after my last entry. At some point during the saga I ended up spending 2.5 days straight in the Bagram Air Field TERMINAL, with little sleep, living off of popcorn, coffee, and snacks provided from the USO. As would be the case with anybody else, I completely lost track of days & time during that period. I recall the events that took place quite well, as each permanently etched an unhealable emotional scar upon my being, but that is about all. I suppose in that sense, my story will resemble that of a drunken wino who witnessed the JFK assassination attempting to describe what happened. So, in short, understand that the traditional ‘Who’, ‘What’, ‘When’, ‘Where’, ‘Why’, and ‘How’ method of storytelling will, in all likelihood, dwindle down to ‘What’ and maybe, with luck, ‘Who’. To my credit, the ‘How’ and ‘Why’ of the situation could not be explained even in the best of mental states.

I made my retreat back to the R&R tent again, this time leaving my 2 larger sea bags filled with Christmas presents, under a baggage awning so I would not have to drag them back with me in the morning. I had already finished the only book I intended to read in transit, so I decided to attempt to lighten my mood a bit by watching “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”. In hindsight, the only constant that remained throughout my entire trip was the sadistic parallels to movies that illustrate the ludicrous things people endure in a humorous or dramatic fashion. I would eventually identify with everything Clark Griswald went through, tragedy after tragedy. He remained by my side smirking all the while, his chimple (chin dimple) basking in all of its glory; he’d whisper “I know how you feel. I have been there too, hang in there it will all work itself out.” In the darker times ahead I would look down at my waist and see Frodo looking up at me in a gay little hobbit way; he’d say “I too have endured the pains you now feel, I too have lost everything in an attempt to reach the end of the Earth.” Oh yes, his Mordar was my San Diego, and I would endure equally trying times ahead. So far the relatives had arrived, and I still had to put up the Christmas Lights, watch the Christmas Tree go up in flames, battle a squirrel, electrocute a cat, and learn I would not receive my Christmas bonus. At that time I had no idea my brother Eddie was well on his way and that the sword of a Ringwraith would damn-near take my life.

Another night in the oven. I started to sympathize with bread. I laid awake thinking about organizations like PETA that make every effort to protect living creatures. I wondered why there are no great protectors of yeasts, or of breads. Hell, female doctors massacre them by the billions and they are still considered the poster-children of American Society. I vowed to myself that I would take up arms on their behalf first thing in the morning, for I saw that we were brethren, for I too have felt the feeling of being cooked to death.

Sunday, 14 December

Upon awakening I decided that I would go eat breakfast and perhaps visit the gym, and dropped my pursuit of becoming the great yeast protector all-together. I had a few hours to kill so I made a conscious effort to savor every bite of my breakfast, and to do exactly what my commander and chief had suggested the troops do in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2006; to de-stressify [sic] myself. There are many people who don’t quite understand gym rats at all. Hell, I typically hit the gym 5-6 times a week and I am both puzzled and amused when I see large, spaghetti-strap-shirt wearing guys throwing plates down and yelling each time the lift something. One thing can be said without debate of frequenting the gym; the stress release is remarkable. I finished lifting and smirked as I noticed an attractive 40-something kind of looking me over. For those of you who don’t know me personally I need to qualify the previous statement by informing you that outside of the volleyball court, I am in no way conceited, and that I smirked because I get such looks once every 5 years now less frequently than I used to (perhaps losing my ghetto booty?), and so, when a female does show her approval of my physique, I tend to bloat about it and revisit the memory later in life much like a young kid reminisces of solving their first puzzle or scoring their first goal when their ego needs patch-work.

I returned to the R&R tent and shuffled over to the shower room to enjoy a nice 30 minute shower. After showering I shoveled down lunch (so much for savoring) and grabbed my bags to head to the TERMINAL. It is 11:30. At the TERMINAL, I and about 200 other military members shuffled around with deer-in-headlights looks permantly fixed upon our faces as if we all moved aimlessly just for the sake of not standing still, doing whatever we could to prevent from falling into total purgatory. Hours passed and there was still no word on our flight. The TERMINAL continued to fill up and the standing room only portions were soon no longer available. We were all part of a massive rave, or concert, sans music, fun, and alcohol of course. I noticed as an interesting social dynamic developed. I seemed to feel that I knew many of these people, and not just by facial familiarity. I had not spoken to more than 2 of them, and for the most part they haven’t spoken to each other, but they seemed to share the same observation, perhaps realizing that we all would share whatever fate the TERMINAL sent our way collectively, and similarity begets social familiarity. It had been 3 hours since we all turned in our ID’s in order for the TERMINAL workers to manifest us on the next flight. I noticed a chaplain reading the “Audacity of Hope” and laughed out loud at the irony before becoming self conscious of people questioning my sanity. We struck up a conversation and I could not help but to appreciate his genuine empathy and honesty. He was soft-spoken, a good listener, non-judgmental, and very bright. I wondered quietly how history would have changed if all Christians were like him. It is an interesting thought really. We were interrupted by a voice on the intercom which announced that our plane had left Kandahar Air Field an hour earlier and would soon be landing to transport us off to our little holiday heavens. The ETA for our plane was an hour. Everyone became restless and instantaneously chatty. The mood was temporarily lifted.

2 Hours passed and whatever good-will the Chair Force had generated had long since vanished. I imagined a 200 person coup overpowering the TERMINAL and hijacking a plane to fly to Kuwait. I looked around and noticed the others imagining the same thing, or perhaps something much worse. Even old chappy at this point was carving an anarchist symbol on the wall with a dull survival knife. (This last part may have taken place solely in my imagination due in part, but not exclusively, to a lack of sleep and the physiological results of a popcorn-pop tart diet.) I looked up to see a young teenage Airman wondering into the crowd with a little sheet of paper placed in his hands. There was sweat on his brow and he looked absolutely horrible. I have seen rabbits in lion dens that were not as timid as this guy. He was Kunta Kente at a Merle Haggard concert. He stopped and scanned the room for a way out, and in a sense found one in the chaplain. A look of relief swept across his face as he shuffled over towards us. He kept his eyes on the floor as he muttered, “Your …uh flight… has been cancelled.” The others started to sense that something was rotten in Denmark and began to talk amongst themselves. The chappy stood up, took a deep breath, and told us all that our flight had officially been cancelled. There were a lot of horrible things said throughout the ordeal. More would follow. I won’t go into that too much. Suffice to say the entire group was approaching a level of anger than has not been seen outside of a Scottish Soccer Match.

Monday, 15 December (12:00 AM)

I sat, in my seat, in my own little wooden and textile world. I would not give it up no matter what the cost. A senior enlisted female made her way in to drop the full story on us. Apparently the plane left too late and did not have time to land so it just flew over us. I sensed that our collective mood was in danger of reaching a point of no return. I am not sure if it was a genuine effort to make everyone’s life a little bit better, or simply because at heart, I am a smart-ass. For one reason or another I mimicked her voice and said, “However, we may have seats for three on Santa’s sleigh which is presently scheduled to arrive at 14:00 on December 24th. I got a pretty good response from that and others immediately began to turn the situation into their own little standup/sit down routines. The senior enlisted female did her best to ignore all the smart-elic remarks as she told us that another flight would be arriving soon, and that seats were available for 70 of us. They had some weird scheme for deciding who would be on that flight. She started calling our social security numbers and low and behold I was called. Once she was finished the group of non-selectees mumbled and cursed as they made their way out of the TERMINAL in hope of salvaging some sleep.

We sat, and sat, and sat. Civilizations rose and fell. Great walls were built and torn down. Ice caps melted and turned to rain, which turned to snow, and created more ice caps. And we sat. It was sometime around 2 in the morning when we, the lucky 70, where instructed to grab our gear and prepare for our flight. At that point in time I had been in the TERMINAL for about 14 hours. We all collected our carry-ons and began shuffling to the back of the TERMINAL in preparation of boarding our plane. We got on buses that shuttled us to our C130. Everyone was excited, jubilant, and awake. It was the best of times.

We boarded the plane and took our seats. We strapped in and looked around at each other with silently communicating some sense of achievement. Some needed to take a piss, and went through the difficult process of propping themselves up in the back of the plane , and aiming into a small cone-like object about 6 inches in diameter, all the while trying not to be seen by female crew members. Others simply rested their heads against the plane and went to sleep. I sat, alert, observing everything, and eventually began imagining my arrival in San Diego as the plane began to taxi to the runway. The lights were out, and most everyone was asleep. We seemed to drive around for a good 15 minutes before we came to a stop. I remember thinking at that time, “there’s no fucking way.” The back door of the plane opened and I looked around for some visual explanation. Those that were asleep began waking up and looking around and commenting that the flight seemed “quick”. I turned to them and informed them that we never left the ground. Once again the emotional rollercoaster had lifted us up sky-high only to drop us to an all-time low, and at an unparalleled speed. Nobody said a word. It was the absolute definition of silence. Like the offspring of Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplain silent. A female crew worker stood on a chair and requested our full attention. She informed us that the back hatch would not shut fully, and that we would have to leave the plane while they attempted to fix it. She also told us that the buses were being used somewhere else so that we would have to walk all the way back from the runway. Again our little group, previously the ‘chosen 70’, now the ‘cursed 70’, erupted. Cursing, slamming, throwing things, kicking, biting, clawing, and doing everything else one might experience during a trailer-park Christmas. I figured I would spearhead operation ‘lighten things up’, though I was certainly angry myself. I called for everyone’s attention. The looks on their faces indicated that they do not know rather or not to take me seriously. I quickly answered their doubts. “I just received news that a plane will soon be arriving, and that it will drive us back to the TERMINAL!” Everyone hooted and hollered their approval, and the jokes continued from there. I proclaimed loudly that I doubted the Taliban went through such problems going home for Christmas, and that was definitely a positive recruiting point. For about an hour the jokes continued back and forth as we waited for word on the condition of our plane.

On the outside I was the jester, on the inside I was Jack Nicholson in the Shining. I could not escape this evil place and could not imagine any ending other than me loosing my peanut jar. I swore I heard the word “redrum” echo in my ear. Children were riding big wheels down hallways as it snowed outside. All the signs were there. It felt hard to breath. My neck and throat hurt like they do when one breaks up with their first true love. I was breaking down like 80,000 mile Dodge sedan.

Again an employee shuffled into the TERMINAL and told us all that they were working on the plane, and that we needed to stay there in case they could actually get the hatch fixed before they silence the runway. Whaaaaaaaaaaaa? Silence the runway? I ran up to ask her what that meant. “Oh”, she said with a smile, (oncoming morning shifter with a good nights sleep, food and coffee) “The president is landing here at 0800 and the runway will be shutdown from 0700-1100.” Now let me step away from the story awhile and explain something. There is a definite yet unpredictable progression of feelings and emotion that run their course when one encounters relentless adversity. At first I took the hits in stride. After awhile I began to get angry, which in turn morphed into me making fun of the situation. I believe it was after this news that I reached my next point on the Totem Pole of madness, pure, unbridled amazement. I am a numbers guy at heart and always have been. Even when I was young I used to spend hours on end observing chaos and probability. I used to play with my dad’s little lottery trinkets just for the sake of witnessing the unexpected … wow, 37 four times in a row! What, with regard to the whole system of things, was the possibility of experiencing such a progression of epic shitiness, and even more interesting, what was the possibility of each event overshadowing the last? Numerically speaking it was a marvel, the 8th wonder of the world, a perfect shit storm.




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