“All things, except salt and water comes from agriculture. You know that?”
George, a contractor who works with us, is almost 60. This man has been on base for over a year. He’s on the home stretch, but he’s got 8 months to go. He works next to me, and finds it easy to strike up conversation with a youth who has much to learn (me), especially once we’ve settled into our shift and properly assessed the workload. Before I was born, he worked in pharmaceuticals, and he has a bachelors in microbiology.
“Central Afghanistan, you know what’s there? Mountains. They don’t have land. Only animals. Like a sheep, like a cow, like a goat, and… what else?” He peels his fingers out to count the different species. Distracted, I’m trying to discern the colors of my Jelly Belly’s in the yellow light. I don’t like to mix them, but there’s so many subtle differences.
“They don’t have land, only animal husbandry.” I like the semi-transparent ones. They’re more citrusy and potent. But if you get just one wrong, it ruins a mouthful.
“Yes,” I reply. “They have Taliban,” I mutter, a joke I don’t expect him to hear.
“No, they have Hizara.” Maybe he’s explaining something to himself. I taste the bunch of yellows I’ve picked, lemony delicious; and a butterscotch, a mouthful ruined.
“This country needs more agriculture.” Now I’m looking for the blue ones.
“You’re right.” I also like the really rich colored ones: dark blue, purple, maroon. They’re fruity too.
“Where you going with that, Marine?”
“I can’t eat anymore.”
“That’s why I asked you four times if you could finish it,” Staff Sergeant says matter-of-factly. SSgt K is the keeper of the candy, and he’s gonna make sure she finishes it.
“My tongue is bleeding.”
“You’ve got 60% left.”
During the silence that follows, Sgt G, also Sarah, attempts to lick off more of the once four inch diameter lolli-pop. She stands by the garbage bin, on the verge of tossing the remains away. Across the workspace, Marines silently watch. At times like this it becomes evident the gears of productivity are completely stopped, as everyone occupies themselves with whether she’ll toss it or rise to the challenge.
“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” I encourage.
“Yea, you’re at like mile 12, ‘oh my side hurts.’ Suck it up.” SSgt says, the same way he talks to the TV athletes. SSgt is the victim here, almost deprived of a full episode of midshift entertainment.
“I could finish it. If I really wanted,” she defends.
“Yea, I could’ve been a Marine.” One doesn’t step down from a Marine challenge easily. Especially when everyone is bored enough to be watching.
Marine’s hear this in conversation with new faces in the armed services all the time: in line at the chow-hall from an airman, next to a sailor at Medical. “I was gonna be a Marine, but” or “I almost became a Marine, except that” or even the bolder “I was a Marine for like three months, but then.” We’re unsure how the sentence finishes, because it’s clear the speaker is not a Marine.
Sarah is thinking hard. The rest of us have slowly turned back to our work. “I’m gonna finish this fuckin thing,” she announces.
“I know. I knew what was gonna happen, but you were just so confident.” SSgt K just knows sometimes.
“I’m sweating.” This may be true, but right now the cost is irrelevant to being able to see her finish that sucker. In fact, the original challenge was to finish it in under an hour.
We’re all invested in it now. Sarah starts crunching away at the last of the sucker. SSgt finalizes the discussion: “I know.”
Just as she finishes the sucker, to everyone’s silent satisfaction, George suddenly gets interested in the commotion. Too absorbed in his work, he asks me, “What’s going on?”
I explain that Sarah has just eaten a huge sucker.
“Oh, that’s good,” he says. I can’t help laughing, and Sarah, who has hawk ears for conversation about her, spins around to ask me, “What’s going on?”
I continue to explain to George that it was a really big sucker, but he’s taking his own road to figure out what happened: “Just one?”
“Yes, but it was pretty big.” Sgt G has now joined the circle, so George tells her himself.
“Oh that’s good. You’re young, it’s good for you. I’m old, I can’t have that one.” It’s true. George was a pharmacist.
The 4 am doldrums are a different breed. The 2 am boredom strikes as a psychological difficulty- there’s still five hours left of work (seven for everyone else on shift), but this one while stripped of the distant finish line, lays a surplus of laziness, a lack of energy to do anything truly contributing, right on top of your workload. I’m too lazy to brush it off.
So in a moment I decide to see how George’ll react to the band Radiohead. This can’t be a bad idea; it’s 4 am. (To be fair, I was initially inspired to share it because I was moved by the music.) There’s a high certainty George is about to hear something he’s never imagined someone would consider creating, let alone recording. (And yes, sometimes I listen to music at work. Sorry, war on terrorism, we gotta survive somehow.)
I play the last track from “In Rainbows,” a piano and vocal, down-tempo piece. After all, maybe Thom Yorke’s vocals and piano are universal. This is what I’m testing. He puts on the headphones asking, “You have music? How? Is this radio or what is this?” He wants to be able to listen to his music on his own, but the only music we have is the modern stuff his generation ‘just doesn’t understand’. He puts them on and I watch him as the song plays.
He’s expressionless. While I’ve mostly portrayed age and senility, know that this man embodies much of what I envision myself to be at his age. One of his priceless charms is that he’s still genuinely open to learning (I started teaching him to type a few days ago), which also contributes to my readiness to share contemporary music.
His hands, round and sun-spotted, rest on the table. I give him an inquisitive look. He nods back. “Yes. I’m hearing music,” his eyes say. Then he starts playing piano- wiggling the fingers on his right hand. Then both hands. The fingers are like synapses he forces to fire, because I’m his friend, and he knows I’m sharing something important, but I assure you at this point I’m experiencing more than he is.
As I continue to watch him, he elaborates on what he hears by conducting an orchestra. In this silent communication, I am suddenly struck by the image of my mom’s father. My grandpa’s sign language mostly forgotten, the emotive connection to his deaf children was reduced to simple gestures complimented by a warm grin. Except here, the connection is inverted, me hopelessly wanting George to aurally appreciate what I do.
In my mind’s eye, my mom is grinning back. I wish she could see this. George takes the headphones off. “That was so nice.”
Ingenuousness is nearly undetectable, which makes it all the more endearing.
Continue reading: 9. Emotional warfare