august 5, 2009
the above is the date i’m writing about but i arrived home yesterday (august, 13, 2009) and from here on i’m writing from notes i took on the trip. it just became too difficult to try to actually write over there. as i mentioned earlier, i didn’t actually bring my computer on the trip and writing stuff down in my notebook, apart from notes, seemed futile as i would just have to type them out later. it also occurred to me that i’d be better off listing as many details as i could remember so that i could fill them out later rather that using my limited down time to write full accounts and have to leave out other stuff that i didn’t have the time to properly record.
we arrived a BIAP which stands for baghdad international airport, (which is kind of ironic because it’s a military air strip with some bunkers and very little else) on a C-130 aircraft. the “C” stands for cargo. [wikapedia says: The Lockheed C-130 Hercules is a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft built by Lockheed. Capable of takeoffs and landings from unprepared runways, the C-130 was originally designed as a troop and cargo transport aircraft.] we exited out the back of the plane. it has a ramp that you walk down. we were waved on by air force guys in tan jump suits. we walked strait out from the back and the wind from the props blew dust around us. the early evening was gray with dust and it was hot. i could have wrung sweat out of my t-shirt. my mind was sort of stunned and even though i knew i was safe i felt exposed in the open of the airfield and lost in the screaming of the engines. i wasn’t sure if i could take my kevlar helmet and flack jacket off so i didn’t for the moment and just walked on, following the soldiers in front of me toward the concrete barriers a few hundred meters on. throughout my stay in iraq i had this image of doing something wrong and that sergeant from the movie “full metal jacket” coming out of nowhere and screaming at me. we got to the concrete, t-wall enclosure (t-wall is made up of 12 ft tall slabs of concrete that are sort of like upside down T’s. they’re everywhere in iraq as they’re used for barriers and fortifications) we were picked up by shelly and jj who would be our handlers for the next couple of days while we were in the baghdad area. shelly looked like she could be a middle school social studies teacher if she wasn’t in iraq. she was very well intentioned. she had a tendency to take even the most obviously silly and ironic statements literally which ended up being pretty amusing because one of the subplots, if you will, of the entire trip was the band coping with the strangeness of our surroundings with humor. with jj and shelly, this made for some amusing misunderstandings. well, amusing for us anyway. i’m not sure how much they ended up liking us.
shelly and jj told us that we’d be dropping our bags off at the base where we’d be based while we were in baghdad and then we’d be convoying to the place that we’d be playing the next day. well, one of the places. we would have two gigs the next day.
after some soldiers loaded our gear from the palette to a truck we drove to our quarters by the JVB (join victory something- i was told eleven times but i never managed to remember it) which is located around a huge lake that is the center of a complex of palaces that formerly were sadam husain’s. after we took our stuff to our CHU (containerized housing unit, pronounced: choo) we went looking for some food at the palace. we were told by the very kind captain on duty that the DFAC (dining facility) was closed but they had had a barbeque on the back porch and they had some steaks and=2 0some chicken and some homemade potato salad that we would be more that welcome to have.
like i said, we were in a palace but while it may have been nicer in it’s heyday, these palaces of sadam husain’s were mostly show. they’re pretty gaudy and constructed of poured concrete and rebar with veneers of marble on the inside.
we were shown out a sliding door to a huge columned patio on a lake where we passed a rack with some golf clubs and a few a few astro turf squares that constituted a mini driving range and up to some picnic tables with some food set out in those tin foil containers with sterno candles underneath and voila, steaks and homemade potato salad. the st eaks were rib eyes and pretty good. mine was even pretty rare. we sat there chewing, sipping our first near beers of our lives and cracking jokes and marveling that we were eating steaks with soldiers all around at the palace of a toppled despot. the lake, made from the tap water of baghdad (while baghdad’s people died of thirst) was streaked with the light of other palaces across and the moon made a silver target in the dust sifted night and the captain came over and told us that if there was anything we needed to just let him know and that they appreciated us coming all this way to entertain the troops and we said thanks, if it wouldn’t be asking to much, could we please have some golf balls to drive into the lake?
we finished up our steaks and there in the ruins of baghdad, on the shores of a mad tyrants lake of stolen water, i took up golf.
we only had an hour or two before we had to rendezvous with our convoy. we left our personal luggage in our CHU (and though we didn’t know at the time, the bag with all of our power cords) and with back packs packed for overnight, got in the van and went through the t-wall and barbed wired dark to the meeting point.
when we got there, the convoy was waiting.
now, i’m not supposed to write about how the convoy worked because bad guys could read this and figure out ways to be bad. so if some parts of this description seem kind of vague, that’s intentional.
we paused in the van and shelly and jj kind of gave us a short brief. basically, they told us that any instructions from the soldiers who were going to be convoying us were to be obeyed explicitly and that they were going to give us a briefing and that they were going to give us the worst possible scenario and not to be freaked out.
we got out of the van into the darkness. i can’t stress enough the unrealness of the surroundings. there’s no street lights. the roads are blasted and not fully paved. there’s an almost constant haze of dust in the sky that glows from underneath with the strange and distant lights of one base or another. there’s a lonely, alien quality to the night that’s not so much reprieved by the daylight as shown all the more in stark relief. we were in a sort of concrete corral where there were parked a number of vehicles some of which were MRAP’s. [wikapedia defines the MRAP: Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles are a family of armored fighting vehicles designed to survive IED attacks and ambushes] MRAP’s are pretty badass but even more badass were the soldiers who were in charge of the convoy. armed and armored with M-4 carbines, bullet proof vests and kevlar helmets; they exuded confidence and capability. they rounded us up for our briefing, fanned out around a sergeant who looked like an x-man with us up front and he told us what vehicles we’d be driving in and we should fasten our seatbelts because they’d hold us in place if we were bumping around or if we flipped (!) oh, and did we know first aid? no? well, if someone gets wounded and they’re bleeding severely take some bandages or your shirt or something and hold it against the wound (!!) and if we take a hit (!!!), don’t get out of the vehicle unless it’s on fire (!!!!) and then go where the soldiers in your vehicle tell you. we were going to take a slightly longer route than normal because there was some intelligence that suggested that there was some nonsense on the normal route. we must have looked kind of nervous because he told us no t to worry, they didn’t expect any trouble but they had to tell us that stuff just in case. so we put on our bullet proof vests and helmets and get into this ridiculously cool vehicle.
it’s a funny thing how some of the coolest things that ever happen to you are the hardest to describe. getting socked in the mouth, throwing up all over yourself or even stubbing your toe on a chair leg first thing in the morning; these things are easier to impart than sitting backwards in a multi-million dollar, bullet proof vehicle surrounded by futuristic warriors in fatigues and body armor, kevlar and headphones, grinning and telling you how to tuck your head into your chest and hold on to your shoulder straps if the MRAP flips and hey, if we do flip, you know, if you think of it, reach over and grab a handful of the material on the gunner’s pants leg like this and try to pull him in and aren’t you the guy who sang that “two princes” song? i thought so yeah, this is a lot cooler than transporting some bigwig where you can’t talk to them or anythi ng et cetera, et cetera talking like it’s no big thing that you’re in a multi-million dollar vehicle armed to the teeth and ready for anything…
the soldier sitting next to me holds the rank of specialist which is the highest grade of private. i remember his name but i don’t want to include it because even though i can’t think of why that information could be used by bad guys i wouldn’t want to give out some kind of detail that would jeopardize anybody. he had to be about 22 years old and he looked like he should be in college somewhere standing around a keg worrying about doing an all nighter to cram for a history final (except that he was super nonchalant about toting an assault rifle around). all the soldiers in the convoy were in their early 20’s i’d say. he told me that he was the unit’s medic and that if anything happened, he’d be attending to any wounds that anybody sustained. he was a sort of mild mannered guy and he seemed a little embarrassed by our open admiration. he kept calling me sir. i was like, hey, you c an call me chris, but he kept calling me sir.
and so we convoyed through the darkness to freedom rest.
freedom rest is an old iraqi officer’s club that’s now being used for R and R. (rest and relaxation) we got there and they briefed us, gave us our keys, told us that the DFAC (dining facility, remember?) was closed (what’s new?) but we could get some wings and pizza and stuff at a little lounge next to the DFAC. we were pretty tired at this point but we were filthy and hungry too. we went to our rooms, showered and headed out to the lounge for some food. the pizza and wings were frozen. the wings were ok but the pizza, coming from new york city, home of th e best pizza on god’s green earth, was pretty bad and i opted for some cocoa puffs from a big display of breakfast cereal as three or four soldiers from our convoy came in and sat down. one of them, a woman, noticed the cocoa puffs in my hand and said something along the lines that cocoa puffs rule, to which i agreed heartily (but upon further soul searching i, in point of fact, find that i enjoy cocoa krispies a little more but i didn’t think of it at the time) and she said that cocoa puffs were her two-in-the-morning snack and i said, well, i’d better make sure i didn’t take the last one and sure enough i had so i came back in and put the little tub in front of here and said, there you go, cocoa puffs. (instant nickname: i wonder if it stuck. over the next day it would be shortened to cocoa “p” and then just c.p.) she said i didn’t have to give her the cocoa puffs but i was like, hey, you all just defended our lives and stuff, the least i can do is give up the cocoa puffs.
it turns out, the soldiers in the convoy loaded our stuff onto the stage right then rather than get up in the morning and do it so we, or rather our crew, ben “stretch” berger and travis “shabu” sluss, decided to go set up right then, rather than get up early and do it. that’s when we discovered that we’d left the bag with our power chords in the CHU (container housing unit, remember?) back at the JVB (joint victory something or other). as we discussed whether this was an insurmountable problem ben mentioned that it’s no every day that you could do a gig where someone could risk their lives going for something you’d forgotten. it didn’t turn out to be a problem as the cords were just regular cords that they had there.
ben and travis finished setting up and we all hung out with them at the stage even though it was super hot. the moon swung through her stations behind a silver veil in the eastern night and we talked and tried to get tired. my mind was reeling with new information and though we’d been on the move since early that morning it was had to come down. finally, i took my little box of milk and my little tub of cocoa puffs and went to bed.