12. Grenades, cigarettes, or melons

(Entry 16)

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Limbo.

This tent is different. Three rickety metal poles plot a crooked row between a disarray of cots. There are unkempt and suspicious looking local nationals, civilians, soldiers sleeping on them. Some of them two to a cot (local nationals). Most of them don’t have sheets. A sign on the double-door cooler next to me reads, ‘You’re welcome to the water, but if you take one, clean up after yourself.’ I pick up some pieces of trash and throw them out to pass the time and hoping to offset the inevitably revoked privilege to the cooler, before returning to my seat on the lone cot next to the tent entrance. This is a holding tent, and I’m waiting here to go on a mission I volunteered for.

It’s called a mission for lack of a better word, but really it was more that I volunteered for a ride. The job is simple: hitch a ride to the cargo at another base, escort it to a third location, then return. (Be that as it may, as of press time, LCpl Ganda is stuck at another base for 24-48 hours because he got off at the wrong place and let the helo take off, during a similar mission. Privilege removed.)

The flight coordinator comes into the tent. He looks a little younger than me, though partly because he’s in tan pajamas. “All personnel destined for Bangladesh line up at smarmlibng.” I don’t quite understand the last word, so I follow the crowd. And of course I’m not going to Bangladesh, that’s only a cover term to throw off the disgusting spies reading my blog for military information. The local nationals seem to want to go to Bangladesh, but there’s confusion about where they came from, as they’re not on the list. This isn’t any of my business, but it helps heighten the chaotic mood of my mission.

Outside, I stand anxiously behind a small group of Marines. They have a lot of gear with them. It appears they’re permanently transferring. Not only am I on a solo mission, I haven’t got more than a clue of what I’m doing, so I stand with as much purpose as I can, and reinspect my single magazine of live rounds. If anything happens, I’ve got 20 to settle this situation. In the name of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Soon enough, a helo lands, and the flight coordinator is mumbling some more instructions.
One officer in front of me says to the other, “I’m getting on this flight, I don’t care if they don’t have enough seats.”

I look at my hand. Something tells me the unique markings they gave me when I checked in, either signifies I’ve got first priority, or last. For some odd, naive reason, I assume it’s the former. After a short while, the pilot gets a head count, and calls out the names of his passengers.

The anxiousness returns. I toughen up. I’m the only name he doesn’t call, and so I move towards him to ask when the next flight is. He knows what I’m really asking is if there’s any way I can get on this one. He looks down at me.

“This all you got? No bags?”
“Nope.”
“I don’t care if you get on my flight, if you don’t care about being comfortable.”

I’m happy. We walk single file out onto the flight-line, onto the bird, and the pilot sends me on first.

“Take any seat alongside the cargo.”

Hell, this makes my mission even more bad-ass. Even if I am sitting sideways without proper access to the seatbelt, in a fourteen inch space between the cabin hull and the cargo. What if the cargo shifts? Nah, there’s enough man here to hold it. Plus I got 20 rounds.

The plane takes off like a bird of prey. A massive, metallic, noisy bird of prey. It swoops up instantly but smoothly, seemingly buoyed by the air. Out the tail of the bird, I watch the base get smaller and smaller, around the silhouetted gunner. He’s strapped in, straddling a mounted weapon, to shoot down any enemy forces or spies reading this article. If this bird did a barrel role, I could pop outta my spot and fly right out the open tail. Just saying. This is real.

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But like I was saying earlier, I’m starting to make a name for myself, so when we finally get to the base, after everyone has deboarded, an officer comes hustling over to the still running helo to meet me.

“You know where you’re going?”
“Yessir. Bangladesh.”
“There’s seven of them, make sure seven get off at Bangladesh.”
“Yessir.”

With that, seven suspicious looking, scruffy, drab-uniformed Afghan Police file onto my bird. I’m to babysit this “cargo” safely to its destination. Easy. First mission objective over, only two more to go.

Not so fast. Soon after taking off again, the helo makes a stop at another base. A pit stop. “Tell them we’ve got to refuel. Everyone has to get off the plane. Meet back at the runway in ten minutes.” A complication! I got this. Seven guys, twenty rounds. No worries. I gesture for them to follow me, but leave their boxes and suitcase (three boxes of cargo, one suitcase of clothing for seven grown males). This separation confuses them briefly. Fortunately my superior linguistic skills clarifies the problem. I believe what I said translated to something like this:

“Your things leave. Go from the plane. You can go to the bathroom for ten minutes. Plane needs oil for ten minutes. We come here ten minutes.”

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Me with some of the ANP I was escorting.

I get a few pairs of eyes looking at me, a few guys reaching at their cargo, and all of them still seated. Finally I return to gestures and the message is properly translated. I know I at least nailed the “ten minutes” part. I think.

Finally, what appeared to be the oldest of them, stood and told his guys to follow. In a seven dwarves fashion, they all eagerly jumped into a tight single file line, and lively stepped out, each one stealing glances to see if I was impressed yet. They seemed more personable than military, and this was the most intimidating part. These were Afghan Police, heir to law enforcement of an extremely chaotic country, flattering themselves with uniform movement. It didn’t bother me in the slightest that they weren’t armed.

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One of the ANP inspects my color-printed book.

I tried to make conversation, but it seemed to be one way at best. A younger trooper looked at me with understanding as I bumbled through niceties, but any two way conversation was mostly with pointing involved. I managed to steal a picture with them, and they loved the technology. Ten minutes came and went. No helicopter.

We were ditched. I got twenty rounds. To pass a few more seconds, I went to grab them all some water. I watched each Afghan National Police scatter in every direction, cackling, in my minds eye, but when I returned, thankfully all seven were still there. Soon enough the helo returned. Well actually a different one returned.

“They need to move all their cargo from the first bird to this one,” the flight crewman told me.

I told them. When the first bird returned, they all obediently piled on, and happily sat down. Arms waving, broken Pashto spitting, I negotiated an understanding, and soon my seven man tweedle-dee line followed me onto our replacement bird. I was getting a little tired at this point, a few hours into the mission, after having worked a full shift, so it felt nice to finally settle complacently into the seat nearest the cockpit as we readied take-off.

Mid-air. Mid-takeoff, really, the crewman idly says, “The pilot needs to know what’s in those crates. Explosives?”

In the crates? Shit. It could be anything, I don’t know. It could be explosives. So I lean over, fully taking the burden of anxiety on this one, and try to ask the young ANP, “What’s in the crates?”
He says, “fdjds fdshfdsahlakerwu32843erncncx,” in either English, Pashto, or Dari. All I really hear is the buzz of the helicopter blades, and my mind wondering at what altitude could these volitile explosive go off. Gestures! After a brief exchange, lots of slow repetition of words, with a look of sudden revelation, he puts two fingers to his mouth.

“Cigarrettes? Smoking.”

Yes! He nods enthusiastically. I tell the crewman. My mind says, “Good, we solved it.” My gut says, “What the hell?”

On this flight, there’s an older gentleman in civilian clothes, maybe sixty by no exaggeration, with a homely suitcase and duffel bag sitting next to me. He’s alone. I wonder what he’s doing in a warzone. Maybe it was to tell me, “It’s probably nuts. Local nuts and stuff in those boxes.”

Yea old man. It’s probably ammunition and firecrackers, and we’re gonna blow up because the stupid pilot didn’t bother to ask what it was until after we took off. No we won’t go high enough. We won’t die. If we do blow up, it’s all his fault.

Without thinking really, my gut prompts me to write on a notepad, “What’s in the box?”

ANP writes verbatim: “KEL,” “MELT,” and “CIB.” He’s having a grand old time because not only did he get to show me his single-file marching skills, but now his English character writing skills. I tell him to write in the Arabic script, in dire hopes that I’ll understand it.

I don’t. But my gut does. I write the word, “fruit” in pashto, and get the same enthusiastic nod I got for saying “Cigarrettes.” I look at the box and repeat, “meywah??” to get another approving nod. My gut approves. It’s fruit. We’ve got three crates of explosive fruit on board.

Cigarettes. Who eats with two fingers? Don’t ever pick ANP for charades. I call the crewman over and tell him assuredly, “It’s just fruit.” He looks at me in that, “Oh good, we already took off, but thanks for telling me,” way. I just saved everyones life.

At the next stop, the old man hobbles his two bags and himself mysteriously off the plane. Alone. In my mind he whispered, “My work here is done.” I don’t tell anyone that the old man really saved the bird.

***

The remainder of the six hours in flight sorta flew by. Forget the pun. After seeing Afghanistan’s future security safely file off to their destination, I enjoyed the ride back home. I read 100 pages of “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and have thus learned I have a considerable immunity to motion sickness. I saved the country by safely delivering three crates of fruit, a suitcase, and seven grown men, without having to fire a single round. This is true modern warfare. (Don’t worry, I don’t really believe that, I only typed it as propaganda for the dirty spies reading my blog.)

Continue reading: 13. A Need for Combat

Previous: 11. The Super Bowl on AFN.

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