The following is a chapter from Until All the Dragons Are Dead, a collection of stories from my travels.
Waiting for the Sun
I have seen more of the Middle East than I ever expected a kid from a small town in Southeast Texas would see. I won’t pretend that my time there has been completely positive, but it has been eye opening. Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia… they all start to bleed together, a mixture of people in ghutras and thobes and burqas speaking a harsh language I have never managed to figure out. It’s not a slight to the region or its people, but it is the acknowledgment that it is not the magical land of the Aladdin and Scheherazade of our imaginations. The romanticized world of the Arabian Nights gets lost somewhere between the airport and your destination.
I took off from Washington DC this time with my usual sidekick, Sam, and another comic named Katsy, an upbeat, sassy black woman from Los Angeles. Katsy was on, always. I technically didn’t meet her until we got to Kuwait, but I quickly realized that the pressure was definitely not going to be on me to have to entertain people off stage. She couldn’t be turned off or unplugged. Her mouth was a machine of energy and stamina, her thoughts projectiles launched at anyone that passed. Questions, answers, ideas, laughter – her food had to turn sideways and tiptoe to get in around the words when she ate.
I don’t know that I ever found out exactly how old she was but it became the subject of discussion over the two weeks. Comedians tend to latch on to one thing and drive it into the ground, and with Katsy, that thing was her age.
Initially she couldn’t remember our names, changing our identities from Sam and Slade to Quincy and Slam Bam. Someone fired off an Alzheimer’s joke and it spiraled out of control from there.
“You can talk about my age if you want,” she said, “but it just means that I’ve seen things you haven’t.”
“Yeah. Like the 1800’s,” I said, rolling around in the back seat with laughter.
A day later the three of us, along with our security escorts and a Sergeant named White, climbed on board a boat – a heavily armed 30 foot Army SeaArk – and headed out into the Persian Gulf. Once we cleared the harbor and got out into open water, the pilot turned around toward us. “You want to drive?” he asked.
“I’m going first!” Katsy yelled and sprinted to the driver’s seat.
“You better hold on,” Sergeant White said, and we did.
Katsy hit the throttle and the bow of the boat shot ahead. Not content with simply going fast and straight, she hit a comfortable speed and then threw the boat into a hard turn, almost tossing our Marine escort in the Gulf. She pulled down on the lever and then hammered it forward again, cutting through the rolling wake left by the bow as it slid sideways through the water. Waves rushed onto the open deck in the back where we held on to the rails and roof and attempted to stay on board.
She spun the boat into another donut and then circled back through it again. The cameraman fell down. More water gushed on board, soaking us below the waist. Her yells echoed over the sound of the engine as White came crashing into me. We hung on.
“When is it my turn?” Sam tried to ask.
“Woooooohoooooo!” screamed Katsy from behind the wheel as she punched it again.
We held on longer until the call came that it was time to go back to port. “So wait, no one else gets to drive?” I asked.
“Sorry, we have to get you guys back for the show. You can bring it into the harbor if you want though. You just have to keep it under five knots.”
“Thrilling,” I replied.
I didn’t know it then, but I would soon long for that cool ocean spray. We were leaving for Iraq in the morning and as we sat around at dinner that night we had hopes of an uneventful travel day. Katsy, however, wasn’t ready to move on to the next day yet.
“You like how well I drove that boat!” she said, rubbing it in.
“If by ‘drove’ you mean ‘filled with liquid’, then yes. You’re a natural” I replied. “How about you go re-drive my coffee cup?”
“You’re just jealous,” she said, and I was a bit.
“It’s cool. Just wait.”
* * *
The room where we waited was a thousand degrees and it was constant. For thirty-six hours things had been tedious and stagnant in a way that only Iraq could be. We managed to get one show in at the Kuwaiti Naval Base before our itinerary was lost in an avalanche of unscheduled detours. Manifested on the wrong flight into Iraq out of Kuwait, we ended up in Balad, a place we were not supposed to be until the end of the week. A quick nap later found us waiting for a flight into our original destination, Kirkuk. Two shows had already been cancelled, and after a quick unscheduled guerilla set in the dining hall we got orders to fly again in the morning.
I remain baffled at why the country of Iraq is so hotly contested. I understand the oil argument now, but not the reason people ever managed to want to live here in the first place. It is alien and dry, with powdery brown dust settling on everything that isn’t perfectly vertical. The hazy air is translucent tan at best, opaque at its worst. And the heat – dear God, the heat – is incessant. It hit 130 degrees the day before we left. I’m pretty sure all those suicide bombers blow themselves up just to cool off.
So in Kirkuk that next morning, we waited. You fly at 0930 they told us. Everything is always military time, which means automatically translating it in my head. If it’s higher than noon, subtract twelve. It is awkward. 0930 is now cancelled they said. Just a few more hours. The air conditioner was broken. There might have been a small fan somewhere but it was defeated by the open door at the end of the room, as if the sun had banged away at the gates until the building simply gave up.
You’re new flight is at 1330 they said. The dust was too thick to fly in. Visibility was zero. They couldn’t get the rotaries in the air with the sky like that. Even bubbly Katsy was beaten at that point and lay motionless on a bench. In that heat your soul cooks to medium well. 1330 came and went. 1700 was now our next possible fly time, but the air was so thick outside that you couldn’t see across the parking lot. We were nowhere near where we were supposed to be and another scheduled show was cancelled while we sat there. All we could do was wait, but the only thing that came was more sun.
* * *
Blackhawk helicopters are quite possibly the coolest pieces of machinery I’ve ever seen in my life. My last time through Iraq, I took them everywhere. They look like sharks, if sharks flew in pairs and had massive guns hanging from their skin. At night the insides glows green and if you look hard enough through the darkness you can just barely make out your companion helicopter as it hovers in the black sky. The desert air, regardless of the time of day, slips hot through the open sides as you cut your way across the landscape. Occasionally, flares flash green and white as they break a target lock. It is intense.
As the rotors slice through the air they generate a massive current of air that circulates clockwise. It whips downward and blows directly into the open back window on the right side of the chopper. It blows hard there. Very hard.
* * *
We eventually made it out of Kirkuk and headed to a forward operating base called Warhorse. An hour after landing we hit the stage. Outside and under halogen lights, the bugs swarmed around us as we told our jokes. A sea of soldiers in fatigues and reflective belts laughed in front of us, making the dust and the waiting over the last few days worthwhile. I like these people, I thought to myself. Good, said Life. Get used to them.
Three days later found us still there. Another dust storm, another missed flight, another day in that godforsaken brown powder. The Muslims can pretend that they defend the region for religious reasons, but even they at some point would have to admit that no god, Allah or otherwise, has come anywhere close to caring about that hell hole for some time.
There was the dust and then there were the flies. Lots and lots of flies. They hovered and buzzed and landed on everything, their bodies stuck to traps in black masses, while thousands of others swarmed, still alive and hungry. I expected the river to turn to blood next, but there was no river. I sat there, hoping a flight would leave before the other eight plagues hit.
We arranged an additional show at the DFAC, the dining facility, on Warhorse. Sometimes you hear stories from other comics about the flawless shows where everything goes exactly like it should and you step off stage to roaring applause and a standing ovation.
This was not one of those.
The ambient roar of a thousand people conversing and the clanging rattle of contracted Iraqi nationals pushing metal carts of food swallowed our jokes as they limped out of a sound system that barely reached forty of the hundreds of sets of ears in the dining room. It was like screaming into a jet engine. Halfway through his set, Sam made the comment that he deserved a Purple Heart for surviving that show. He wasn’t kidding.
* * *
Eventually they managed to schedule a chopper out to Warhorse to pick us up. My new best friend, Sergeant Nethers, had arranged a nice little diversion in the event that we were unable to get out after all.
“If the sand doesn’t break, I’ve got you cleared to go out on an MRAP and shoot the .50 cals,” he said.
“Who’s shooting cows?” Katsy asked, wide eyed.
“We just met her yesterday,” Sam and I said simultaneously.
“I’m gonna get you, Slam Bam. Watch,” Katsy shot back, making us all laugh.
“I didn’t forget about the boat, you know. You have one coming.”
“Uh huh. Try it,” she said, and we laughed some more.
Thirty minutes before we were supposed to follow Nethers out to shoot the .50 caliber, word came that our bird was inbound. “Grab your gear,” someone said. “You have to go. Now.”
As I put on my vest, Katsy shot past me. She wants to be first on the chopper just like on the boat, I realized. Well, cool. How perfect, actually. I eased in behind her in the queue as the rest of the passengers lined up. They opened the door leading out top the helipad and we marched out in single file. Only as we approached the chopper did I move in beside her.
“Take the good seat!” I yelled over the wind and sand, and motioned with my hand toward the back right. “I’ll take the one facing backwards since I’ve flown before! You take the good view this trip!” I wasn’t completely sure that she’d heard me until she slipped over into the seat I had indicated. She gave me a quick thumbs up.
“You’re welcome!” I yelled.
We buckled our four point harnesses as Sam and a group of soldiers piled in after us with their gear. We were packed in tight as we levitated off the pad and into the baking desert sky. “Your turn to hang on!” I said, and winked at Katsy.
At 150 miles per hour the wind tore into the cabin like a rabid dog. She tried desperately, hopelessly, to cover her eyes. Her cheeks vibrated as the burning air clawed at her face. She squinted and turned her head, but it was everywhere. The gale pried her mouth open and ripped her gum from under her tongue, where it hovered for a brief moment before it bounced off a soldier’s helmet. She tried to bury her head in the corner but the wind found her. It rocked her back and forth and made her skin quiver and flap.
I cackled across from her, my camera snapping picture after picture while I tried not to hyperventilate with laughter. It was totally worth the wet blue jeans.
* * *
We ultimately made it back to Kuwait in one piece and on time after several unscheduled stops. We spent a day at a base dubbed “Mortaritaville”, so named for the relatively ineffective daily shots lobbed over the wall by insurgents. We marched up the ramp into C-130’s and fought the engines as they hummed and pushed blistering air at us across the tarmac. We sat huddled in our rooms waiting for the all clear after a warning siren went off at another base. “Just wait for the boom,” we were told. “If you don’t hear the boom, it’s not good.”
“Wait, what’s it mean if I don’t hear it?’ I asked.
“That means it hit you.”
Climbing on board our flight back to DC, I was exhausted. As we drew close to the States, I watched the sun rise through the window somewhere over Newfoundland. At 40,000 feet, things fall into perspective. Staring down through the cobalt blue and orange tinted clouds you could make out the twinkle of city lights. As people shook themselves awake seven miles below me, I wondered what they were doing.
Somewhere down there, someone was rushing to get to an office so they could yell at people for not pumping out enough of some trivial product or another. People were neglecting their families to race after a paycheck that would only buy more things that probably wouldn’t make them as happy as time with their family would have. From the air, it was so easy to see how worthless a lot of our efforts are. I remember hearing a story about a businessman and fisherman somewhere in Mexico, a story that I can’t quite recall now but that I am certain sums up my feelings as I stared out that window.
Then I thought of the soldiers that I had just performed for and just how tough the conditions can be, not only for them but for their families back here in the States. I was there for two weeks and was worn out from the heat and the early mornings and the cramped conditions. What our soldiers have chosen to do, for years on end, makes them nothing short of amazing to me. They’re heroes.
I don’t know a lot of things. I don’t know if our presence in the Middle East is good or bad. I don’t know if it changes anything on a grand scale. The global aspect of our efforts over there aside, I know that I’ve met individuals that have made an impact on a personal level with the people of Iraq, and that’s where it counts.
A real impact, too; not one that seems insignificant when viewed from a distance. I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m doing the right thing or if I’m in the right place or if I’m not supposed to be somewhere else with someone else doing something else. The one thing I got while staring out that window was that it doesn’t really matter as long as I’m happy.
There’s a world where bombs go off and people carry guns and other people will blow themselves up because God told them to. It’s a world where life can end abruptly and without warning, and I don’t want to spend any more of mine than I have to chasing something unnecessary and useless.
I am grateful to those men and women that put themselves in that situation so that I don’t have to.