Monday, June 1, 2009
We spent today at the pool; steaks and hot dogs on the grill; mounds of potato and macaroni salad swiped from the chow hall in Styrofoam containers; near beers and sodas amassed over the course of a week in ones and twos after every meal (including breakfast) until we had enough for a full cooler. On the way we picked up ice out of the back of a semi truck parked on the side of the road next to the perimeter fence. The fence is just chain link with barbed wire there and you can see palm groves beyond. The man who worked at the ice pick-up spot directed us to back our truck up to the loading platform and asked our sergeant how many bags we wanted. He disagreed with our request for just one insisting that we needed to take four instead. He disappeared into the truck and returned looking like a ninja appearing from the shadows, face wrapped with a cloth to keep dust out of his nose and mouth, shades covering his eyes, he unloaded three bags into the cooler which now looked full to our eyes but he was determined to squeeze in the fourth, so we let him. There would be no arguing with the ice ninja.
Balad, like most coalition bases in Iraq, is not designed to withstand a full air or ground assault. It doesn’t have to. That threat no longer exists and even if it did, our surveillance and intelligence agencies are so advanced that warning could be given in time for defensive measures to be put in place, at least that is what helps us sleep at night. What we do have are “T” walls. These barriers are massive. Standing 7 to 15 feet tall and 3 feet wide, they are placed side-by-side around nearly every soft facility (non-concrete) on base. Their purpose is not so much to take direct hits from projectiles, but to shield residents from shrapnel in the event of explosions outside. I worry that the walls are susceptible to falling over but they are bottom heavy (think upside down T) , similar to basketball hoops that use sand or water at their base to keep them upright, but they are everywhere, so they must be okay, I guess. The most interesting thing to me about these walls is not their intended purpose, but rather what they have become. Any person with a speck of talent, an ounce of patience, some paint and some time granted off from work can try their hand at being an artist. I think of my sister, an artist, who can and has created wonderful works of art on chests of drawers, picture frames, and seashells. The splashes of color are a welcome sight next to the dusty ground and shrubs. They are a way for units to identify themselves to passing traffic and memorialize fallen heroes. If you drive anywhere on base you will see dozens of these works of art, badges of honor, and, in some cases, symbols of the fact that some of us have way too much time on our hands here.
Diversions are a necessity, however, and we have recently found ours. When my friend and I returned from a trip several weeks back, one that ended with a night of cornhole, we inspired our team to come together and build our own set. Four of us dedicated a couple of hours for a few nights in a row last week and got it done. The internet provided the building instructions and our neighbors provided the tools, warehouse, and some spray paint that looked like it had been passed down--team to team--from the 1970s to get it done. One board is red, and one board is white, and each board has its own story.
The red board is red because we ran out of white paint. Not much of a story there although we are sometimes called “Red FET” for reasons I have yet to learn. Aside from the color, we decided to paint on it an emblem that we got a kick out of when we first saw it in an embroidery shop back in Kuwait. When one of our Iraqi engineers saw it he was a bit confused. Here is my best attempt at recreating our conversation:
Engineer: What is the meaning of this?
Me: Do you get it?
Engineer: Yes of course. It says no bull s***.
Me: Yep. That’s it.
Engineer: But what does this mean? No bull s***? In Iraq this is great offense!
Me: How so?
Engineer: It means your bull cannot s*** here! You must take your s*** somewhere else!
Clearly, he was taking the sign literally, not as a turn of phrase. I didn’t ask him, but now I’m wondering if our cornhole board is now a replica of signs common in Iraq, perhaps the American equivalent of the “Warning, Guard Dog” or “No Parking” signs. Here people post the no doo doo signs to keep their neighbor’s bulls out. In any regard, it makes a fantastic target to aim the bean bags at when we’re playing the game.
On our white board we painted the Air Force civil engineer badge. Below it, rather than just writing FET 2 again (2.0 to be precise… we thought it was cool, but the boss called us dorks), we wanted to write it in Arabic so that it was different than the other board. We asked one of the Iraqi engineers to come help and after several minutes of trying to find out how to insert Arabic characters in Word (we traced the designs onto the boards by projecting the images up onto them and then tracing them) we arrived at what he said was the closest thing to “Facility Engineer Team... FET” in Arabic. But, he wanted a second opinion. Our second engineer was called in to read the board without first telling him what it said, and he didn’t understand it. When we explained it to him, he started to get animated, saying what we had come up with was too much like custodial engineer team to do us justice. Not wanting to call ourselves janitors, we asked him to change it. Over the course of the next 10 or so minutes, he and his partner proceeded to have a back and forth conversation/argument in our office with the light off and the projector on, trying to figure out what to put on the board. When they finally agreed, we made the mistake of calling in the third engineer for a final say. He too objected to the verbiage so the three of them began another debate in Arabic. By the time they agreed on something and we started tracing (we ended up going with what they assured us was the Arabic translation for Project Engineer Team… we hope) it was a good half hour after we had started the process. The fact that it took these three well educated, easy going men (who are friends) thirty minutes to come to agreement on three words makes me wonder how anything gets done by the Iraqi government.
When we finally arrived I was excited, this being my first time to the pool other than when I peaked in one night to see where it was, and it didn’t disappoint. The pool is enormous. There are two volleyball nets in the water and another off to the side of the pool in a sand pit. A basketball hoop and a high dive anchor the two short lengths of the pool. I called it “Saddam’s pool” because of the curious depth of the water in the shallow half of the pool, just the right height for the average male to find it rather uncomfortable (torturous even), so you have to either drop down, swim, or just constantly lean one way or the other to not feel exposed. It was strikingly cold in the pool compared to the scorching mid-day air so we mostly spent our time taking short dips and then returning to the shaded picnic benches and taking turns playing cornhole. It was strange to be sitting at a pool in the middle of a combat zone. Passing through the gate was like entering into a different world. Unlike most places on base, weapons aren’t allowed at the pool, and backpacks are. Shirts don’t need to be tucked in, hats are allowed, and girls, gasp, are there wearing bathing suits (strictly one piece suits of course). Having lived out of a garage and a Salvation-Army style warehouse with beds elsewhere in Iraq, I never thought Balad was austere, but going to the pool here is seriously like going to spring break except for the fact that the guy to girl ratio is absurd. What few girls are here are generally surrounded by guys so it ends up feeling like what I imagine all-male resorts are like, pleasant for a day trip, but not exactly the kind of place I’d want to frequent on a regular basis.
We decided to head home when the dust rolled in. Over the course of an hour, the sky became a brownish haze and you could stare directly at the sun without even squinting. Back in the states we know it’s time to go home because we need to prep for dinner, or get ready for bed, or we have some chores to attend to. Here, we know because you can stare at the sun without hurting your eyes and breathing has become a chore. The filters in that pool must be top of the line.