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Picture Yourself

Personal Essay

     Picture yourself stepping off the plane.  Your first step is into a wall of heat and light.

Above you is the burnt sky; below you are steps that descend to the scorched tarmac.  Around you are droning aircraft engines, the smell of jet fuel and exhaust.  A passenger bus idles near by; it’s covered in white dust and the blue paint is sun bleached.  Lines of uniformed figures form in front of its hinged door, their vapor blurred faces indistinguishable.  The door slaps open and the figures step solemnly inside.  Touch down in the land of the sun. 

     Picture yourself jet lagged and disoriented.  Picture yourself sleep deprived.  Picture the airline food setting inside your stomach like a transplanted organ gone bad.  You remember your wife snapping her newborn daughter into the car seat.  You’re not sure if it was a day ago or a week.  You hear the car door shut, and echo inside your chest.   You remember watching the car drive away into the Louisiana dusk.

     The bus rolls through a series of checkpoints.  Your eyes and mouth breathe in the dust and for an uneasy moment your not sure if your going to sneeze or puke.  At the next check point a foreign national soldier steps onto the bus.  Clad in pea green, he scans the bus for a head count.  “Twenty two,” the bus driver tells him flatly.  The guard turns and says something in Arabic to another guard who quickly jots the information on a clipboard.  Picture yourself as a unit of cattle. 

     Then there was the lay over in Italy…a day ago, or maybe two.  There was the shower at the Navy dorm that gave you athlete’s foot, there was the restaurant across from the base with the great food and beer, and there was Arnold getting drunk and starting a fight. Maybe it was a week ago, maybe a lifetime. 

     The bus passes a stucco wall riddled with holes.  The bus driver says this is where the Kuwaiti officers were lined up and shot.  You flashback to being ten years old and shooting bottles with your pellet gun.  You remember the fragmented holes and muddy water that would drain from their jagged wounds.  You remember the moldy smell of rotten beer streaming down the wooden post and forming sandy scabs in the dirt.  Somewhere behind you Arnold sleeps slumped over against his duffel bag.      

         In the Italian city of Katonia the buildings towered over the narrow streets, and you recall being awed by the grand cathedrals and the gothic archways.  As the taxi raced through the rain stained streets you noted how the old architecture compliments the foreboding dark cityscape.  The yellow taxi, itself a Technicolor misfit in a black and white print.  Beside the driver was Arnold flicking a cigarette out of the window, telling jokes the cabbie could never comprehend.   Picture yourself just slightly amused. 

     You arrive at the make shift base, and wait to dismount the bus.  Outside the rectangle windows the sun begins to set; peaking around columns of sand colored tents, and sending shadows against the concrete slab where the cattle figures stand waiting for their luggage.  The heat is all around you.  It pushes against your face, and pulls down with a tangible gravity.  A voice is directing you over the loud speaker, “Open your Chem bag!” The voice is guiding you through an inventory. “Gas mask,” check.   Charcoal filters,” check.  The voice is loud and intrusive.  Your thinking about sleep, but it’s a thousand years away; two hours of processing and paper work.

    

  Rubber boots,” check

     The cabbie abandons you at a corner pub.  Soon your sitting at an outside table with a pink and white checked table clothe.  It reminds you of a T.S Elliot poem you read some years ago; however, instead of falling in love with the laughter of a beautiful woman, you have Arnold for entertainment.  He strolls up to the table with two Guinness.  The beer is luke warm, but the thick consistency works well with the cool evening air.  For the first time since leaving you’re beginning to relax.  Arnold reaches for his smokes, “Damn it dude, I’m out.”  On the next street over Arnold finds a cigarette machine.  An elderly man dressed in black is fumbling with his change, fumbling with the levers, cursing the machine.  “Never mind,” Arnold says, “I’ve just died of lung cancer waiting for gramps to figure it out.” 

Over garment,” check. 

     Later, back at the pub with smoke and beer in hand, Arnold is suddenly chatty.  He’s telling you about a duck he had as a kid.  “I raised it from a duckling,” he says completely serious.  You fight to keep a straight face.  “The duck stayed on the farm, and when he would see my school bus coming down the dirt road he would come waddling to meet me. I swear to god dude, that duck loved me!”  Picture yourself uncharacteristically sentimental. 

Protective gloves, with cotton inserts,” check. 

     You throw your duffel bag and assorted luggage on your small cot.  The air-conditioned tent freezes the sweat and grime to your body.  That foul smell is you. 

A voice from the corner of the tent advises you to check your cot for spiders, and your boots for scorpions before you put them on in the morning.  None of that fazes you.  You sleep like a hostage. 

     Ninety days later, (or maybe ninety years) you stand at BWI in uniform waiting for your wife.  Your tan now, and you have new scars to show off.  You know what 130 degrees feels like.  As you push by with your duffel bag people you’ve never met before say,  “Welcome home, son.”  You’re thinking about the wall where the officers were executed; those holes like mouths that scream to the wind.  You’re thinking about Arnold, and his duck.  He told you that a wild dog had killed it, and for a long time he would look for it out of habit whenever the bus rolled up to the house.  He’s back in Oklahoma by now, back on the farm. 

     Your wife’s car pulls up and you watch her open the door and step out into the wet Baltimore night.  Soon her arms are around you, and for a moment the world stops to watch one of its cattle figures.  For a moment the baggage handler, the taxi driver the businessman all stop and watch.  For a moment you’re in love and willing to die.