Sunday, January 30, 2011

Meanwhile, back at the frat pad

Captain Adventure is roommates with Engineer Lovesalot, a Navy lieutenant whose geographic separation from the female species appears to be causing him physical pain. They're both fully grown men, but they carry themselves like frat boys and have an ongoing war of attrition based on causing the other just enough pain to be annoying. It's awesome to watch.

(Before I went on leave, I'd asked Lovesalot if he needed anything from Europe. He looked off into the distance, sniffed the air as if searching for a memory, and mournfully whispered -- "girls?")

The two of them have taken to carrying around cans of compressed air -- the sort you'd use to clean the dust out of a keyboard -- because if you spray it upside down on exposed skin, the propellant comes out in a streaming jet that's cold enough to sting.

"So we were in our room last night," Lovesalot said (Boston accent: flat vowels, final r's dropped), "and that bastard tried to get in me in the back of my arm, right here, back of the arm, but I ducked and he got me RIGHT HERE" (open mouth, index finger aimed at the tongue, talking as if though at the dentist and fully numbed) "right here on my TONGUE -- it tasted like I'd chewed up an aspirin or something, on my TONGUE -- and I was like, you got that in my fucking MOUTH," (mouth still open, still pointing indignantly at his tongue).

"So I told him, you gotta sit there and let me do that back to you, and he was like, twitching and trying to like, get away from it" (and here he imitated Adventure, tongue extended and eyes closed, head down and to the side, twitching in anticipation of the hit on his tongue), "but he took it, I mean he HAD to after that. Seriously, it was like aspirin."

I'm not sure I have done this story justice; living in the grown-up equivalent of a college dorm does sometimes have its upsides, though.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Yum yum, Give Me Some

The Godfather, whom I've taken to referring to in real life as Commander Killjoy, has now become a loyal reader of this blog. He promptly informed me that the blog is worthless, as it barely focuses on him at all and certainly fails to document the vast universe of witty nuggets that pass his lips on any given day. He's made it clear that he expects this situation to be rectified, chop chop.

This directive came on the heels of a conversation in which he laid out his plan to use our recently-ordered simultaneous interpretation equipment to beam his inner monologue directly into the ears of his minions. I pointed out the logistics difficulties -- interpreter's equipment has only a short range -- and he decided on the spot (rapid, decisive leadership) to move all 92 members of the PRT into the Senior Enlisted office next to his. "But you'll only have 10 earpieces," I said.

"The best part of this plan," he replied, "is that you will only have an earpiece, and not a mouthpiece."

(The simultaneous interpretation equipment is a mic with 10 wireless earpieces for it, which will allow our interpreters, who do whispered translation during shuras, to be heard by everyone who has an earpiece and not just by those in their immediate vicinity; I told the Godfather that I'd ordered us a force multiplier from the Embassy and he promptly responded -- "You ordered another Commander Killjoy? Because that's really the ultimate force multiplier.")

I can only assume he's still mad at me for naming a to-be-slaughtered goat after him.

Christmas: there's an unexpected Kenyan-American on the SecFor team -- Specialist Masai -- and he, born and raised in East Africa, had been itching to get his hands on a celebratory goat. I had dropped a few not-so-subtle Yule-season hints to the Governor that being gifted a Christmas goat would be much appreciated, but it never came to fruition; rather than relying on the kindness of others, SecFor took up a collection of a couple bucks a man, and one of our interpreters called a guy he knows, and two hours and 90 bucks later a goat showed up at the front gate.

(There's a goat market just down the street from the FOB -- goat is the preferred red meat in the Afghan diet -- and said goat market is rumored to sell poppy and raw opium paste on certain days of the week; I have never seen the market and can neither confirm nor deny these rumors).

The goat was tied it up in a concrete bunker just behind the operations center and left it a bowl of water and a plate of goat-inappropriate food that SecFor generally appreciates -- turkey bacon and corn dog chunks, things on that order. The water bowl was Styrofoam and the goat hoofed through two of them before Masai took over, leaving the water at a distance where the goat could drink it without kicking it over, and supplying a tray of lettuce. "What are you naming it?" I asked the guys. "Oh, we're not naming it," I was told. "We don't want to get too attached."

I deemed that to be unacceptable. I named him after myself: Little Dakota.

I was worried that Little Dakota wouldn't provide enough meat for the entire PRT, so I checked with Captain Adventure (the tall and self-assured head of SecFor, who specifically asked for his nickname; I was going to call him Mortarshoot -- he's an infantryman at heart -- but Adventure seems equally apropos) to see if I could sponsor another goat. He greenlighted it. "If there's anything these guys could use," he said, "it's more killing." I ponied up the 90 bucks.

Little Dakota was small and black and gentle, and got along with everyone and generally abhorred violence in the form of headbutting, and when the second goat arrived it was clear that he was everything Little Dakota was not: wild-eyed and bucking, with a swagger in his step and larger, more threatening horns. Little Dakota was a peace-maker; the new goat was tougher, a warrior with no interest in diplomacy or making friends. The metaphor was too perfect; I named him Little Godfather.

Portrait in Sepia: Little Godfather in the foreground; Little Dakota in the Background

"I'm gonna be out there and make sure he puts up a god damn FIGHT when it's his time to go," the Godfather said. He didn't need to oversee the process, though: Little Godfather was out for blood, and would headbutt any SecFor guy who got too close.

I spent the morning of the slaughter feeding the goats animal crackers ("wrap your mind around how meta THIS is, guys") and generally trying to ensure that their last hours were pleasant. There was a brief discussion about where the slaughter should actually take place; we toyed briefly with the idea of doing it on the concrete slab formerly used for basketball but from which all the hoops had been removed by Sergeant Major MoraleKill, the senior enlisted man of the Maneuver unit, who had de-hooped the court as a means of preventing injuries. They ultimately decided to keep the slaughter on PRT turf, near the concrete bunker where the goats had spent the night.

There had been a spirited debate about who would actually do the goat slaughtering -- Sergeant DoubleD (who holds some sort of NCO position within the SecFor, though what he's actually tasked with is beyond me; the name DoubleD -- that's Domestic Dispute -- is taken from the ongoing and protracted arguments, punctuated with equal numbers of "baby I love you and miss you," that he has with his wife in the public arena of Facebook. "Facebook is nothing," I was told. "You should hear them argue on the phone.") wanted in on the action, but it was decided that Masai, who had long experience in all things goat, should actually be in charge of the first one.

Little Godfather was the first to go.

Just before the slaughter: Specialist Masai, assisted by Sergeant DoubleD

Masai took him by the horns (DoubleD had tried to pet him and had gotten headbutted, and kept a berth from that point forward), dragged him to the appointed area, and held him down with his neck over a fifty-cal ammo can -- a metal box used to hold bullets. Little Godfather bleated mournfully -- not an "I'm in pain" bleat or even an "I'm scared" bleat, but more of a "Wow, this is a shitty situation and I am helpless against it" sort of bleat that I found oddly depressing. The scene had drawn a crowd of cameramen; I walked away for the actual cutting.

A gaggle of bloodthirsty PRT-types; Captain Adventure is kneeling, second from right

Masai gutted and skinned the goats (Afghans usually skin the goats by attaching an air hose to them, in essence inflating the skin off the carcass; Kenyans, it seems, just use a balled fist to work the skin off the meat), and then they were wrapped in tin foil, buried in a pit just outside the FOB gate, and covered in hot coals and a thick layer of moon dust.

We dug them up six hours later. "I hate to be all food-safety civilian here," I said, "but maybe we should consider stabbing them with a meat thermometer to make sure they've reached an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees?" "You know, that's a good idea," Captain Adventure said. "Does anyone here have their meat thermometer on them? Sergeant DoubleD? Specialist Masai? Anyone? No?" He looked at me like I was an idiot, grinned, and started digging. The goats smelled delicious.

Little Dakota and Little Godfather were served alongside Carne Asada and an enormous pot of rice that the Governor's staff made for us. (In addition to the pot of rice, the Governor sent over four additional goats the next day; they were put into Dynecorp's FOB petting zoo along with a cow, a turkey, and multiple other goats). The final verdict on our goats was that they should have been dug up an hour earlier -- they were definitely over-roasted -- but Masai declared them delicious and tore into them; between him and our stable of interpreters, most of the meat was picked clean.

The first piece I had was tough and hard to chew, and I declared that I was definitely eating Little Godfather; the second piece was tender and soft, and I announced that the higher quality cut of meat clearly came from Little Dakota. "Of course Little Dakota was more tender," the Godfather replied. "Little Godfather was all muscle, and muscle is always tougher."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Everything is Illuminated

A few photos from the New Year's Mortar Shoot. These were late-night illumination rounds, normally used to light up battlefields, with eleven rounds fired to ring in 2011.

"Late-night" might be a stretch -- it was 7:30 when they started, but the sun goes down early in the winter and there's no twilight in the desert; New Year's Eve was moonless, dark and still.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Expect the Unexpected

It is raining in Farah. Our local staff says it's first time he can remember since February of 2009. I never thought I'd find rain so deeply unsettling.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Next Step: The Amazing Race

New Year's Eve on FOB Farah was set to be relatively low key, with a barbeque followed by a celebratory early-evening mortar shoot. The Arizona National Guard barbeques less frequently than the Guamanians, but it's damn good when they do --they're unexpectedly proficient at carne asada, thin-slicing beef and then marinating it in lemons and garlic and orange juice and god-knows-what-else; the beef, eaten with roasted peppers and tomatoes tucked in a flame-toasted tortilla (sent in bulk by someone's wife, god bless her) is hands down the best thing FOB Farah has to offer.

I had every intention of eating myself sick at the barbeque, and woke up early on New Years Eve to hit the gym in advance of my over-consumption of grilled meat. Afterward, I was back in my room and contemplating a nap when I got at knock at the door from Lieutenant Granola, a Michigander with a firmly crunchy-Seattle mindset, right down to his new-age Paleolithic dietary habits. "Hey," he said. "I, uh, just wanted to make sure you were still in for the Adventure Race?"

"That's tomorrow, right? What time?" I asked.

"Not tomorrow," he said. "Today. In, like, half an hour. You're in, right?"

I was already cripplingly sore from the gym -- it was in essence my first time to exercise since going on leave in November -- but there was no way I was missing the FOB Farah Adventure Race. I put on running shorts and a plain grey t-shirt, but then thought better of it and tossed on my winter marathon outfit: white shorts over black and red tights, an army t-shirt with the "ARMY" crossed out and "CIVILIAN" penned in above it, and a headband to top it off. I was going for sporty, but it's clear from the pictures that I actually looked vaguely village people, with a dash of Richard Simmons thrown in for good measure.

"I'm not sure you needed to write it on your shirt for people to know you're a civilian," the Godfather said.

I met Granola on the basketball court, and we were joined shortly thereafter by our other teammates -- Warrant Exasperated, a good-natured but generally grumpy Warrant Officer from Public Affairs, and Sergeant CapsLock, whose wife has the endearing habit of writing his Facebook updates in blaring boldface ("TALKED TO CAPSLOCK TODAY, HE RECEIVED ALL THE PACKAGES WE SENT HIM, HE GOT THE PACKAGE THE "BLUE STAR MOTHERS" SENT TO HIM, HE LOVED IT ALL, HE IS DOING WELL, HE IS VERY BUSY").

The four of us were the only team the PRT fielded, and we were one of almost twenty five teams. The Italians were out in force, accounting for almost half the teams, and most of the rest came from the Maneuver Unit (the actual war-fighting types we share the base with), though a few other teams were represented as well -- the guys from the Fire Department had a team, as did the Air Force (who, as you might expect, run our airport) and Dynecorps, who are supposed to be in charge of repairing things like the laundry machines, though given how few of the laundry machines actually work it's hard to say what they actually do.

It was new year's eve, and as such one of the teams featured the Chaplain dressed as Old Man 2010, with a long fake beard and a cane. Another of his teammates was there in an oversized diaper, dressed as baby 2011. It was 65 degrees and sunny. It was set to be a good day.

The organizers distributed maps of the FOB ("Don't lose them," we were told. "It's a security risk if you do"). Each of the teams, it turned out, had been allowed to organize one event, and a total of eleven teams had done so. The first team to finish all eleven events would win the race and take home the grand prize of being able to cut to the front of the chow hall line for an entire month.

The organizers shouted out -- "Ready… Set… GO!!" and our entire team blitzed off the basketball court, sprinting at full speed for the space outside my office. We had decided to hit our own event first, because it was relatively close and because we knew where it was, giving us an advantage if we sprinted there -- if another team beat you to an event, you had to cool your heels and wait until they finished before you could start. As planned, we made it there first, and promptly set to work.

PRT EVENT: Pick up a gigantic all-metal tow bar (used to move disabled Cougars and weighing something in the neighborhood of two to three hundred pounds), walk it fifty meters away, around a cone, and back to the starting line.

It was surprisingly easy: 300 pounds actually isn't much for four people as long as they all work as a team.

Another team, hauling the tow-bar.

We dispatched the event with no problems, checked the map, and bolted for our next station.

MARINES: The Combat Medicine event. Pick up two stretchers loaded with "patients" made of 100 pounds of ammo cans. Haul the stretchers fifty meters and load them onto an up-armored humvee. Grab the rope attached to the front of the humvee and drag it 50 meters. Pick up your buddy and fireman carry him 50 meters to the end of the compound, and then switch roles, with the former patient becoming the fireman and vice versa.

I've never met a Marine who did anything in moderation, and this event absolutely reflected that mindset. Just hauling the ammo cans would've been enough for an event; just dragging the humvee would've been enough for an event. Add in the stupid fireman's carry and the whole thing became obliteratingly, over-the-top difficult. The Marines, in the mean time, were throwing smoke grenades and yelling at you to "give it more of a combat feel."

(The Marines had apparently wanted to do a "run and gun," which would've entailed sprinting to a range and blasting away at a target, but they were told that live ammunition and speed trials is a recipe for disaster and that they should make other plans).

I was paired with Granola, who's about the same size as me but considerably stronger; that said, I had no idea how to actually fireman's carry someone and his attempts to talk me through it were less than effective ("where the hell do my arms go?!"). I ended up bending the rules and giving him a lame piggy back ride, which we deemed good enough. Despite my logistical difficulties, I fared much better than CapsLock, who was stuck fireman's carrying Exasperated, who's well over 200 pounds of muscle. It nearly crushed him, and he spent the rest of the race trying to recover.

We were two events in, and all of us were already gasping for air like wounded seals. We started to run to the next station, dialed it back to a jog, walked for a bit, and then slow-jogged/half-hustled past the airport to a section of the compound owned by the guys who go out in advance of us on missions to make sure there are no IEDs in our way.

ROUTE CLEARANCE PACKAGE: a standard tire-flip event. Cover fifty meters with one huge tire that you aren't allowed to just roll, as a logical human might do, but rather flipping it end-over-end.

Most teams were putting all four guys on the tire at once, but we had two guys go in at time, taking turns, so you in essence only had to do half the event. It took us a minute and forty seven seconds, and then we were off to the airport.

AIR FORCE/CARGO EVENT: Pick up a box, drop it onto a steel air force palette, and then strap it down with cargo netting. Physically speaking, it wasn't a particularly difficult event, and I actually enjoyed it because cargo straps are one of those things that you see from time to time on the FOB but that you never get a chance to play with -- sort of the ultimate That's Someone Else's Job-type toy.

It basically just required tossing some netting over a box and then putting on clips ("actual air force requirements are way more strict," Exasperated said). We knocked it out in a hurry, paused briefly while CapsLock threw up ("I'm not sure I can run anymore, guys"), and then slow jogged it up the helipad for the Dust-Off crew's event.

The Dust-Off crew are the Medivac guys, and the hospital is emblazoned with "PICK 'EM UP, DUST 'EM OFF, SET 'EM BACK DOWN." In addition to a fleet of helicopters, the hospital also has an ambulance truck labeled BAND AID 1.

DUST OFF EVENT: A rope toss. I'm sure there's a name for the game -- it's something you'd see on someone's patio if they were hosting a barbeque that a lot of kids were coming to -- but I have no idea what the name is and halfhearted googling didn't get me very far. You basically had to take little weighted rope-type things and throw them onto a rack. The rack was divided into three levels (red, yellow, green), and you had to get one rope onto each level of the rack before you could move on.

This much we now know is true: people in the PRT have terrible aim.

We finished, and then decided to swing back around to the far side of the FOB to cover all the far away events before finishing with the center of the FOB, which was event-heavy and close to the finish line. We headed through the Italian side of the compound to the mud area where they park their tanks.

ITALIAN EVENT: The Italians on the FOB right now are a unit of Lagunari out of Venice, and they wanted an event that would reflect their maritime heritage. (The Lagunari are the Italian equivalent of Marines -- Marines, you might say, ostensibly guard the Marina, while the Lagunari ostensibly guard the Laguna). The closest water is about a thousand kilometers away, so they built a boat out of wood and attached it to long metal poles, and made their event involve hoisting it onto one's shoulders and hauling it through the desert. The boat weighed, without exaggeration, at least 70 million pounds.

Seriously, 70 million pounds.

From the gate, you had to pick up the boat, set it on a metal barrier, climb over the barrier two at a time, pick the boat back up, set it on another barrier, climb under barrier two at a time, and then head off around the corner.
Over one barrier, under the next.

After the barriers, the boat had to be carried through 50 meters of Afghan moon dust that was at least a foot thick. About halfway through, the Italians turned on the fire hose.
It was freezing cold, and it tasted like unfiltered Afghanistan tap water, and it was MISERABLE at the time, but looking back at this picture now it looks outrageously fun. I'm debating if I can somehow use this picture for internet dating.

From the mud field, you had to drag the boat up and over a five foot mud hill. You then take it back through the mud field -- again with the fire hose treatment. And then, because the event hadn't been physically challenging enough, you had to put the boat down and climb over a concrete barrier.
Me and Granola going over the wall, with Exasperated in the foreground.

Exasperated was wearing camouflage pants from his uniform, and they snagged on the top of the wall as he went over it, ripping a chunk out of them. They continued to tear throughout the rest of the remaining events, eventually leaving him with a gaping hole in his crotch. "Thank god you're wearing underwear" was the universal sentiment.

All that was left after the wall was to pick up the boat and again go through the first-under-then-over routine with the barriers. Then you had to rotate the boat 180 degrees to get it back in the starting position, ready for the next time. Viva Italia!

It took us FOREVER to do this event, which was outrageously brutal. We had to stop more than once and catch our breath and allow our aching shoulders and biceps a second to rest. There was only one boat, though, which meant that all the other teams who arrived after us had no choice but to cool their heels while we finished; we were, in essence, delaying the entire field of participants, which was kind of awesome. We finally crossed the finish line, rotated the boat the mandatory 180 degrees, and then limped downfield to the fire department's event.

FIRE DEPARTMENT: There had been rumors that the fire department would also be doing a mud event, and we collectively weren't sure we could face it. Their actual event -- pick up four fire hoses, run them 50 meters down and back -- turned out to be a cakewalk. Anything more might've been fatal.

We finished and then jogged up to the main FOB for the last four events, the first of which was at the chapel.

THE CHAPEL: The chapel's event involved picking up a huge rope, hauling it onto the top of the concrete bunker outside their building, and then back around to the beginning. "We don't, like, have to pray or anything?" I asked. "No. Well, I mean, you can if you want to," they told me. We moved on.

TASK FORCE SOUTHEAST: Task Force Southeast is another group of Italians on the FOB in charge of three of the districts in the east of the province. They've built a traditional wood-burning pizza oven in the middle of their compound, and the pizza that they serve all too infrequently is so mind-blowingly amazing that I kind of get a little choked up just thinking about it. I was hoping -- praying, even -- that their event would somehow involve eating massive amounts of pizza, and I was set to dominate.

Tragically, their event just involved crossing a 30-foot rope that was strung up between two MRAPs. I was unexpectedly good at this: you have to hook your legs onto the rope and then sort of spiderman your way across, and since I'm pretty flexible, I found it easy. We finished, asked for pizza ("no pizza"), and then moved on.

DYNECORPS: Dynecorps does FOB maintenance, and their event ironically involved leaky pipes. You were given three six-foot lengths of pipe, a bucket and a tap at which to fill the bucket. You had to fill the bucket from the tap, and then use it to fill the pipes with water, and then (plugging the bottom of the pipe with your hand) carry the water ten feet to another bucket. Finishing required getting about two gallons of water into the final bucket.

We watched the team in front of us struggle and struggle and struggle with this, which was odd, because we dispatched the whole exercise in like 45 seconds before jogging off.

We couldn't find the final event. We searched, Granola and I ran to the basketball court to ask the organizers, we double checked the map: nothing. We finally figured it that they were outside the chow hall, but it added a good five minutes to our time and ratcheted up the frustration quotient by a good amount.

TASK FORCE ARROW: Task Force Arrow are the infantry guys on compound, and their event was all about brute strength. "I assume you're all familiar with a four-man push up?" they said. (I was not; my team filled me in). "Do a four-man push up, and then in the up position, walk on your hands to the finish line." It was about 25 feet down.

A four-man push up requires you to get on the ground, like you're doing a regular push up. Someone then comes and, lying down perpendicular to you, puts their feet on your back. Someone else puts their feet on his back, and so on, until all four people have in essence woven themselves into a square. It's like doing a regular push up, only with the entire weight of someone else's legs resting on top of you. The final product looks like this:

I found this IMPOSSIBLE. I just couldn't do it -- I wasn't strong enough to make it happen. I made it into the "up" position once or twice, but I wasn't even close to strong enough to walk on my hands in that position. I ended up dragging myself along the tile to the finish line, and it was only with Exasperated in essence pushing me from behind that I made it. It was brutal.

(I can say without hesitation that I was the weakest link on my team as far as strength goes; that said, I and Granola -- who is my on-again-off-again running partner -- were without a doubt the fastest on the team).

We finished, and I looked at Granola and declared that we had to finish strong -- we had to sprint it in. We bolted for the basketball court, and as we rounded the corner I threw my arms in the air and shrieked out "PRT!!" We hit the finish line and I tossed them our score card on which each of the events had been checking off participation.

"Uh… where's the rest of your team?" they asked. Exasperated and CapsLock finally rounded the corner (Exasperated clutching shut the huge hole in his crotch), and we collectively crossed the finish line.

I had been expecting to come in dead last. I have no pretentions about my own prowess as an athlete, for one, and the military guys -- all of whom seem to be at least 10 years my junior -- usually work out twice a day, and really, who are we kidding? But we planned our route well and rarely got stuck at any of the events waiting for others to finish, and we had enough hustle in our step to end up crossing the line in fourth place. Given that there were some 25 teams, we were more than pleased with fourth -- beaten only by two Italian teams and the guys from Route Clearing Package.

There was no prize for fourth (third place got cigars, I think, which has no appeal to me), but being able to gloat victoriously is certainly a reward unto itself.