Written by Lucas Pralle
It was midday, and the white sun was high and hot over the parched brown skin of Iraq. Garcia and I were standing on the western post, the side that checked everyone leaving the city of Ar Rutbah and going who knew where. Most of the time, it was the uninteresting side of Traffic Control Point Three. We were more concerned with what was going into the city than what was going out.
The post consisted of a few Hesco barriers on each side of the white, dusty road that led up to them from the city. The barriers were huge five-foot-tall cubes of tan colored fabric surrounded by a heavy-gauge wire mesh and filled with sand and dirt. TCP 3 was surrounded by a wall of them topped with barbed wire.
Garcia was about 5’9″, five inches shorter than I was, but he still weighed just as much I did. A Mexican-American kid from San Francisco, he’d had black hair past his shoulders while working as a cashier in a department store, absentmindedly checking out customers while watching the clock for his break. Then he enlisted.
A lot of guys lost their strength when we were out in the field for extended periods of time, but not this kid. First, there wasn’t a weight room out in the middle of the desert, and second, the food sucked. Garcia didn’t care. When the rest of us were sitting around and bitching about the food, he’d go around and collect the shit we didn’t want. When we were out in the desert and there weren’t any weights to lift, he’d find a rock. If there weren’t any rocks, he’d use his rifle.
He was like a laser-guided missile. Once he locked onto his target, his goal, there was no stopping him. It wasn’t a beam of light that got him on target though; it was sheer will, and because of that, he always hit his target. I admired him for that, and he was a good guy to have at your side in a place that threatened to kill you at any moment. A toothpick twitched around in his mouth as he scanned the city through big black binoculars. We hadn’t had a car approach us in over half an hour. It had been an unusually quiet shift for us.
“You figure that song out yet?” I asked as I looked out at the impenetrable face of the city. There was no movement—just the distant outlines of minarets that towered above changeless tan and gray squares.
“Finally figured out the bridge. Now I’m working on the solo,” replied Garcia without lowering the binos. We had found a dusty old acoustic guitar when we showed up at the TCP a few weeks earlier. It was missing a “B” string, but it was good enough for us to sit around and play Metallica songs to one another at night. I’d sent a letter to my mother back in Wisconsin requesting a fresh pack of strings.
“By the way, looks like we’ve got someone coming our way,” said Garcia. I squinted out into the blinding white light. I didn’t see anything.
My SAW was on top of the Hesco in front of me. It was propped up on bipods and facing the city. I picked it up and looked through the scope down the road. I didn’t see anything. “What color is the car? I don’t see it.”
“That’s because there isn’t a vehicle.”
I looked over at Garcia again. He still had the black binos up to his eyes. “Somebody is walking over here?” I asked. I was surprised because Ar Rutbah was a mile away from where we currently stood. There were miles of endless desert on the other side of the TCP if they passed through. It was close to noon, and the air was boiling. The temperature was 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Look at that hill to the left of the road down there,” said Garcia as he pointed with a tan gloved hand. I squinted behind my sunglasses and barely made out a pale form in the wavering heat. He looked to be about half-way to our post from the city and walking alone.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“About what?” He still had the binos up. He waited a bit before speaking again, like he was thinking it over. Then he dropped the binos and turned and looked at me. The toothpick was twitching up and down in the corner of his mouth.
“I don’t know,” he said.
We both looked out into the desert at the approaching form for the next twenty minutes and waited for what came next.
The man came to a stop about fifty feet in front of us.
“Ogaf! Ogaf!” I yelled out from behind the Hesco as I held on to my SAW. The man stopped in his tracks. He was a wearing a light gray thawb that went down to his ankles, brown loafers, and a red checkered headdress. The man had a slight smile on his face. I couldn’t tell if he was being good spirited or if he was up to something.
It seemed like just about everything was a potential bomb in Iraq. It wasn’t just a matter of looking for holes in the ground either. Dead dogs and men on the side of the road were hollowed out and filled with explosives. Barriers and the roads themselves were cast in concrete with bombs inside of them. Mortars or rockets could drop on your head. Cars would be filled with explosives. None of those were the worst though.
Suicide bombers were the worst. We’d hear reports all the time about guys coming in with bombs strapped to their chest and killing Marines. They were grisly deaths too. Unassuming men would come up to checkpoints, stand in the middle of crowded markets or sneak into meetings and ignite shirts made out of plastic explosives. The shirts were lined with hundreds of ball bearings capable of tearing through your body like it wasn’t there. If you did survive, you would have chunks of bone and flesh from the poor fucker standing next to you blasted from his body into your own. There’s just something fundamentally disturbing about someone that hates you enough to eviscerate his own body to get to yours.
Garcia yelled for the man to turn around and to pull his thawb up so that we could see if he was hiding anything. He did, pulling his grey thawb almost up to his head, like a child would get undressed before bed. The skin on his belly under the thawb was light, and his underwear was yellowing from all of the sweat. Dignity had left Iraq long ago. He put his thawb down again and turned around. He didn’t appear to have any hidden bombs. Garcia and I came out from behind the Hescos to search him.
Garcia stood off to the side about five feet, while I went through and patted down his pockets and pulled out whatever I found. There was a pack of cigarettes and a blue lighter in the front breast pocket of his thawb. I gave it back. His wallet was in his side pocket, along with some dinar. I checked his identification card, and it was fine. He looked like the man in the picture. A dark brown complexion, black mustache, older—like many of the people that I saw in Iraq. The desert wore them down quickly. It seemed as if they were either old or really young, and the ones that were in between were the guys that we were worried about. This guy wasn’t one of them.
I took a step back after I finished searching him. He reached into his chest pocket and pulled a cigarette out of the white pack and handed it to me. I noticed that he was missing the middle and pointer fingers on his hand. The wound had happened a long time ago. The scars were barely noticeable. It looked like he had never had the fingers to begin with. We both lit up our cigarettes and began puffing away. He pointed out into the vast expanse of the desert beside us.
“Harr,” he said.
I looked at him as he took another puff from the cigarette. I was waiting for more. Nothing came.
“What?” I asked. I took another step back away from him and looked back to Garcia for answers. Garcia was behind the Hesco already. He shook his head slightly, as if to say that he didn’t understand either. Garcia shifted his grip on his rifle. This I did understand. If the guy standing next to me tried anything, he’d be dead before he hit the ground.
The old man let out a short laugh as if to get my attention. I thought he might be crazy. After all, he did just walk a mile through the blazing heat. The man smiled and pointed up at the sun and out into the desert. He began fanning his face like he was cooling himself off.
“Harr.” He said. I watched intently. Then it dawned on me.
“Hot?” I asked as I fanned myself to show what I thought he meant. He smiled and nodded his head.
“Harr,” He said again. There was a deep roll with his tongue on the rr.
I tried it.
“Har,” I said. He shook his head in disapproval. I was a white kid from the Midwest. I didn’t know how to roll my tongue.
“Harr,” he said again. The man wasn’t giving up on me. I was smiling.
“Harr,” I finally got it. Well, sort of. Good enough anyway. The man smiled again and took another puff from his cigarette. The nubs on his hand caught my eye again. I was curious. I gestured to his hand with his missing fingers and pointed to my own hand. He nodded and motioned toward my SAW—shaking his arms and pretending like he was shooting an invisible enemy in the desert. I tightened my grip on my gun. The man took another puff from his cigarette. He raised his deformed hand to the east and looked back at me for a response. His face was humorless. It was a thoughtful look.
“Iran?” I asked. He nodded. He could have been lying. The wound on his hand was too old to be from this war. It had only been four years since it had started. He could have lost the fingers during the Gulf War back in ’91 fighting Marines like myself. Or he could have lost them in the eight-year-long war against Iran. I was only aware of it because of something that I had seen on the History Channel or something. As he inhaled a long drag off of his cigarette, I watched the florescent orange cherry eat its way deeper. He had long deep lines on his face. We stood in the torrid heat watching one another smoke.
I finished my cigarette and threw the butt on the ground, crushing it with my boot. The Iraqi did the same with his shoe. We both stared down at our cigarette butts. Our conversation was over, and now I didn’t know what to do. An awkward silence was beginning to develop. Whatever moment that we had shared was over. The old soldier took a deep breath and pointed to something about ten feet away on the side of the white, dusty road. He turned toward it and said something that I couldn’t understand as he plodded in its direction.
I quickly looked back at Garcia behind the Hesco barrier. He shook his head and waved me back in. I turned around and started to back up toward the Hesco—ready to raise my weapon. The old soldier was bent over and messing around with something on the ground.
He turned around with it clenched in his fist in front of him, like a child trying to share something with his mother. His worn face still had the thoughtful look on it. The old soldier slowly opened his hand. Contrasting with the thick, brown calluses of his hand were a couple of light, purple-colored flowers with bursting blossoms like clover. I had never noticed them before.
He raised his bad hand up as if to say, “Wait a second.” I watched closely as he took one of the purple blossoms and put it in his mouth and began chewing. He grabbed another blossom and beckoned me forward. I hesitated, and then, not looking back at Garcia, I walked out to where he was standing. He watched as I reached down and grabbed the small purple blossom from his palm. I put it in my mouth and chewed it. The plant was sweet and was a nice change from something out of an MRE. He gave a slight nod and held up his hand. The old soldier turned and walked over to the side of the road again. This time I waited for him. He pulled something else up from the ground and returned with it. It was some sort of olive-colored, leafy weed. He held one up to his nose and smelled hard, and then handed it over to me. It smelled like some sort of lemony-pine. Like an air freshener that you would buy back in the States. The man pointed down at his shoes and at my boots. He imitated sliding the weeds into a pair of boots. I nodded.
“Shukran,” I said.
He smiled and nodded. “Ma’a salama.” He gave a quick salute and turned around and began walking toward the city.
“Ma’a salama.” I went back to my spot behind the Hesco and leaned forward against it as we watched the old soldier eventually disappear over a hill.
“What was that all about?” asked Garcia.
“I don’t know. I feel like it was something important.”
An explosion went off in the city, and after a while, black smoke could be seen rising into the blue sky.
Garcia brought the binos back up to his eyes. The day was still young.