AfghaniStan Diego

Chapter4; Koyaanisqatsi ([kɔɪɑːnɪskɑːtsi]), – Crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living

In a matter of a few seconds, the weight that had rested on my shoulders for over a week was lifted. I was HOME. HOME was where my heart was. HOME was a place where I was in control of my levels of misery and happiness. HOME was my visual reminder of why I spent so much time away from HOME. In all of the chaos and anger, I had forgotten the three persons that suffered through every setback I suffered through as they anxiously awaited my arrival. I had lived in an earth/moon/universe revolves around me world for days. It was healthy and comforting to step back a bit, and to decentralize the universe from my existence.

Inside my HOME, I was reunited with my wife and two children. Doogel was extremely happy to see me. We had been best friends for 5 years, and our separation was tearing both of us up mentally. Chunkster was her typical reserved self, sneaking in a smile or a word or two every now and then. I spent 30 minutes reacquainting myself with my creations before unpacking and straightening up the office. My parents would be arriving in a matter of minutes and I needed to sort everything out to optimize our 5 days together.

Shortly later my mother and father were at my HOME. I was excited to have them both there and had already begun my mental planning of all the places I would take them and of everything I would show them. One thing that had grabbed my attention was the ridiculous amount of snow I saw up in the mountains as our plane approached San Diego. My dad grew up in a cold environment and might, to this day, like snow and cold weather even more than I do. I pulled him aside and told him that we were about 45 minutes away from a ton of snow, and asked if he thought my mom would want to go see some. My mother dislikes cold weather more than my father likes it. I remember inviting her to come visit us when we lived up near Chicago. It seemed that there was nothing I could say or do to persuade her to come up see us. Chicago was simply “too cold” for her. Still, I must have underestimated her love of her grandchildren as she seemed more than happy to accompany us up the mountain to celebrate our own little “southern tourist” version of the Christmas holidays. We agreed to set out early the next morning.

The trip was entertaining to say the least. First and foremost was the fact that our TOASTER-ON-WHEELS did not have enough room for four adults and two children. We discussed the alternatives and decided for whatever reason that my father (not a small man) would ride in the back of the car (where we typically throw our groceries). I suppose he didn’t care how we got there as long as he got to see snow. We stopped and picked up some fast food on our way out. Jade was extremely excited to go see the snow. I kept thinking about her reaction to “nose” in Chicago. She simply loved it. She would stay outside playing in it despite the ridiculous temperatures (-34 F windchill really???).

The trip took about an hour. As we made our way up Sunrise Highway the Junipers and other conifers began to accumulate snow. We stopped on several occasions to take pictures. At the top of Mt. Laguna, there was no less than 20 inches of snow on the ground. The locals reported totals up to 36 inches on or around the mountain. Several Parked Cars lined the roadway as their owners went sledding or skiing. We pulled over and jumped out of the car. Conditions could not have been better. The temperature had to be in the low 40’s. I grabbed Jade and began walking out toward an opening in the field. It was at that point that I realized exactly how deep the snow was. Jade’s lower half disappeared. I turned around just in time to see my mother sink down into the snow with a surprised look. Laura, Chunk, and my father followed. Chunk seemed intrigued by the snow however she was a little less than excited about it when she fell down. Her gloves kept coming off and she seemed to be very afraid of the mystical, cold sheet of white that she had never really seen before. We spent an hour or so playing and hiking around before deciding to get back in the car and drive around a bit.

We had watched several kids sledding down the slopes and I regretted that I again, forgot to buy Doogel a sled. I figured that the one-stop on top of the mountain might still have some sleds. I decided to drive around for awhile to let every one soak in the views. My dad contently looked out the back window as we drove/slid through the snow. After stopping at a couple of scenic overlooks, we made our way to the little store to purchase snacks and a sled. As luck would have it they had both. We turned the car around and headed back to the popular slope areas.

As soon as I parked Doogel jumped out of the car to go sledding. I handed the camera to my mother as I helped the pickle trek through the deep snow towards the slopes. We watched a few kids fly down before hiking up to the top of the smaller of the two hills. I sat down on the sled and instructed her to sit down on my lap with her legs extended out. After we situated ourselves I let go and off we went. Now I need to be honest about something. Though I have been around a fair share of snow, I have, for whatever reason, never gone sledding. I was half amused and half amazed as we gathered speed and barreled down the little hill. It took all I had to hold Jade in place as we spun around, and hit bumps and even left the ground on a few occasions. By the time we reached the bottom, I was lying on my back and had enough snow inside my coat to make a small snowman, and Jade was laughing so hard she was nearly in tears. My mother seemed to get a thrill out of watching and filming her little girls sledding. The more we did it the better we got. Jade even went solo on a couple of rides, her 50 lb. body flying into the air after every hitting each and every bump. Laura and I made an attempt at a new land-speed record (suggested by Mr. Griswald) but ended up wiping out entirely halfway down. I don’t exactly recall what went wrong. What I do know is that she, the sled, and I all decided to go our separate ways. Of all of us, I do not think anyone laughed as hard as the Chunkster. She laughed non-stop each and every time she bounced down the hill. I personally got a real thrill out of sledding with her.

Time flew and the next thing I knew it was time for dinner. Again we drove around for a while, and eventually made our way over to the little town of Julian. I wanted to show it to my dad since I had taken my mother out there a couple of years earlier. We strolled around, pausing to check out each store and eatery. It was getting dark and we were all very hungry. We hopped back in the car, crammed my father in the back again with the sled, and drove off to grab dinner at a little diner I used to frequent after mountain biking. It was very late when we arrived back HOME. All of us were spent, and I felt the full effect of a 12 hour jetlag.

The following days with my parents followed suit. Each day we would set out to do something, and would arrive back HOME shortly after dinner, and I would pass out prematurely due to the effects of jetlag. We shared a special Christmas together. My dad got nearly every part of San Diego my mom saw two years earlier. We shopped, ate out, and played video games together. Both of my children loved having them around. The 5 days we spent together flew by. Before I knew it I was driving them to San Diego International to board their plane.

The remainder of my vacation in the states was equally enjoyable. It was nice to have time alone with Ra, and with each of my kids. I enjoyed taking Doogel and Chunk out to the playground. I learned that Chunk was the polar opposite of her sister in that she was afraid of heights and falling. At an early age, Jade was a fearless daredevil. She would often do flips off of the couch and she would climb on anything she could and jump off. She was so reckless that I dreaded the day when I would have to rush her to the hospital. Logan on the other hand was calculating and very reserved. I observed and appreciated the difference between the two. Away it was easy to categorize Logan as a cookie-cutout, replica of Jade. In my time with them I began to learn of all the little nuances that made my Chunkster special and different. It was like having your firstborn all over again. In the days to come I would develop a special appreciation of her and a bond I thought I could only share with my BFF, Jade.

Laura and I indulged in all the fast food and beer we could get our hands on. We played guitar hero until we actually thought we could play guitar … (This happens after about 614 hours of playing). We shared our own little Christmas as we had two years earlier. Here I was, the proverbial teenager, sharing Christmas with my own wife and kids. That statement may seem scary, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t see the 16 year old in me when I look in the mirror. I imagine that will come to pass someday. I know now, that I am smarter, more driven, and certainly, more responsible, but I believe my similarities to myself back then outweigh the differences. Perhaps this is something everyone experiences.

As the time began to run out on my wonderful little 15 day vacation things started to turn for the worse. The last couple of days HOME consisted of me running through the gauntlet of things I wanted to do or accomplish before leaving. This was the first of two, very humbling lessons I would learn during my vacation. As an organized, list-making guy, I was so concerned with accomplishing everything I set out to accomplish that I didn’t enjoy or appreciate the accomplishments as they happened since I was already thinking about the logistics of completing the next “Task”. For example, I promised Jade I would build us a tent downstairs for us to play video games in for an imaginary campout. Unfortunately I procrastinated that so long due to working on other important items, that by the time I erected the tent, Jade was practically already asleep. Our whole tent excursion simply consisted of me building it, and moving her half-asleep body to her side of the tent so she could finally good to bed for good. It wasn’t exactly how I planned it. I was stressing myself out, worrying about the things I wanted to do before I left. Perhaps I had the TERMINAL to blame. I was HOME with the ones I loved, and I felt remarkably distant from the word “relaxed”. Worse still, Jade began to realize that her time with Daddy was coming to an end. She began acting up, and putting the pacifier in her mouth. I spent the better part of the last two days disciplining her and ignoring her. To this day those memories break my heart. I mean that … they break my heart. At one point of time she sat up in her room coloring. I made my way upstairs past her room to do something in the office and she looked up at me with sad eyes and handed me her artwork. It was a picture of three stick-people with sad faces. Above the stick-family were random letters. I asked Jade what it said and she looked up at me with sad eyes and said, “It says I am sorry that I am a bad girl and I do not have any good ideas”. I had a hell of a time holding back tears. I was so self-absorbed with all the little errands I had to run before leaving that I forgot the reason I was running them. I picked her up and took her into the office. I sat her down, wiped the accumulating tears from my eyes, and began talking to her about her coloring. We made an art-book for me to take back with me. Outside I was comforting her and holding her, doing everything I could to let her know how special she was to me. Inside, the anger and pure hatred toward the Navy that had invaded me during my times at the TERMINAL was overwhelming me. After all, it wasn’t my fault that my children were hurting inside.

My time at HOME had come and gone in no time at all. Perhaps the TERMINAL had something to do with it. There, time had almost come to a complete stop. I remember looking at clocks mounted on the wall and thinking that they must have been needing batteries since they did not seem to move at all. At HOME, time wouldn’t even allow me the time to appreciate it. I took solace in the fact that I would be returning HOME again in a few months. I imagined setting right all the things that went wrong during my visit HOME.

As always the flight left San Diego international at balls-early-O’-clock in the morning. No one in their right mind was awake at that time. Paris Hilton had probably retired hours earlier. It was unnatural and cruel, because it robbed me of quality “evening time” with my wife….which was when we always played scrabble. I wanted to make the time pass so I forced myself to sleep the entire way. We landed in Atlanta and were herded around like cattle again. My connecting flight did not leave for 5 hours so I walked around to search for a spot where I could sleep. The floor was littered with depressed service members lying around or surfing the internet. I could tell they were all heading back to theatre. I again ignored everyone else and slept, or sat and did my own thing.

It would be a waste of time to take you through the details of my flight back. It was exactly the same as the flight HOME sans hope and happiness. Instead I wish to discuss the entire point of my narration of the events that took place during my Christmas leave. Surely you didn’t think that I would leave you hanging with no sense of perspective, completely lost and confused, and wondering what the point of all of it was (have you seen Remains of the Day?). Yeah it was miserable. Hopefully you got that. Yes, for all of those that have asked, I really did kind of lose my mind (As I read Persig…go friggin figure). None of that motivated me really to write about it. I didn’t need sympathy and in fact kind of dreaded telling the story as it would always leave me angry and unmotivated. The point of the story was the slap in the face that awaited me in Afghanistan. It was so obvious, and yet I had overlooked it all-together. I had always prided myself on being able to see multiple perspectives and on being as empathic as anyone. Yet here I was missing the big picture. I saw a single swirly brushstroke and the entire Starry Night.

I spent another couple of sweltering nights at the R&R tent I had lived at earlier on in my journey HOME. It was cold outside, and the mountains and plains were covered in snow, yet I still found myself sweating and hating life at night. On the third day I hitched a ride with a convoy heading to my base. Bagram lies about 1000 feet lower than Kabul. The entire trip we were climbing. I sat in the back of an up-armored vehicle starring off into the distance. About 15 minutes outside of Kabul we came upon a trash bag city. I have heard of tent cities, and have witnessed some of the eccentric habits of our HOME less in San Diego, but I have never seen an entire neighborhood using nothing but discarded plastic trash bags as shelter. Snow covered the ground and I found my eyes racing all over the place, identifying freezing kids, devoid of warm clothing, huddled under a plastic bags hung in leafless trees to block whatever snow was coming down. Their very essence and identity was centered on misery I will likely never understand. There it wasn’t about finding the time to play Halo with junior; it was about junior staying alive through another harsh winter. Only two days earlier I was bitching about sweating while I slept. How many children in the group of thousands I was starring at would pass away from the sub freezing temperatures in the same time span? As we drove along I caught the eye of a young boy on the side of the road, perhaps no older than 6. He was emaciated, shivering, and had a look of desperation as we drove by. He was hoping we would throw him something….anything. His image engraved itself in my head. I could not turn away. I lost sight of him about a half mile down the road. What a giant slap in the face all of this was.

The image of the freezing children and that homeless little boy jump started a self assessment mode that was long overdue. I began thinking about all the troops who had deployed and perished. I thought about them not coming HOME to their families at all. I wondered how many of them had perished in shortly before returning HOME for the holidays. It seems that things could have been horribly worse on both sides of the tracks. To think I had it worse than the Afghans I was sent over to protect was a selfish and childish thought that I will forever be remorseful of. I was also ashamed to have temporarily forgotten the pains and suffering of the families of my fallen brethren. For the remaining few months in theatre I thought of these things every time I wanted to denounce my fate or bad-mouth my luck.

When I arrived back to base I hopped out of the vehicle and drug my 3 bags and body armor clear across base. All said and done I was lugging a total of 200 pounds with me. The weather was very cold, and my rifle banged up against my knee on several occasions. The entire trip to my hut, as I sweated and grunted, and lost my breath from the 5,800 foot altitude, I never lost sight on the way things could be. The worst thing that had happened to me the entire day was being forced to drag my own shit across base to my warm, comfortable, room, to my second HOME. When I arrived, I threw my bags down and lay down in my bed, and starred at the ceiling. I had a lot to think about. In a moments time I fell asleep listening to the hum of our heater.

Afterword

It has been 4 months since the ordeal began. Things in the Navy still irritate the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong there. Hell, as I am writing this sentence I am waiting to receive any information regarding my travels to go play volleyball for the All-Navy Volleyball Team; information that I was supposed to have received weeks ago. Now, 10 days before camp, I don’t have a ticket, location, dates, or anything else of value. Time with my kids has been better. There always will be several aspects of fatherhood that befuddle me, but my resourcefulness and access to Google make me a formidable foe to the unknown. I am sad to report that one of the Lt’s we trained with at Ft. Riley was shot a couple of days after I arrived HOME. She was scheduled to return HOME in a couple of months. Many other American and NATO soldiers were killed during my stay in Kabul.

My Afghan friends still awake daily in a country that has an uncertain future at best. Here we worry about a recession. There they worry about rockets landing in the living rooms of their HOMEs, and starving to death. I try to do my best to remind myself and others that we have it good here. Whenever I am angered to the point of tearing up, or when I have reached the end of my short fuse, I imagine the freezing child standing on the side of the road in the plains above Bagram. Yes, I am thankful for what I have, how could I not be.

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