Friday, November 20, 2015

48 Hours at O’Hare International

From 2003


The man was going to talk to me, I could tell. I was sitting on a red girder railing outside the United terminal, smoking a cigarette. My back was to him, but when I saw him sit down out of the corner of my eye I could tell he wanted to talk to someone. And I don’t know why, but I knew it would be me.

“You know what gets me?” The other smokers ignored him, but I shifted slightly to look at him. “What gets me is that there’s a whole stand in there selling cigarettes – cartons of cigarettes – but there’s nowhere to smoke but out here.”

“Yeah,” I said, unsure of whether to commit myself to this conversation. “You can’t even smoke in New York anymore.”

“That’s what I heard! Man, I’m from LA, and that shit just would not fly there. It’s another example of the government, trying to fuck us. ‘What can we do to fuck someone today?’ they say. ‘I know, no smoking.’”

“Yep.” I didn’t want to discuss the various ways the government was trying to fuck us with this stranger. I had my own, rather lengthy list, but wasn’t sure he’d agree with the particulars. Instead, I looked at the man. He was compact, about my height. Wiry, with long arms that he flung wide to punctuate his pronouncements. Dressed simply in a gray t-shirt and jeans, both of which were very clean and appeared to have been pressed. Two small ears stuck straight out as if to disassociate themselves from his shaved, sunburned head. His blue eyes rolled and widened in his red face, and his mouth was a jumble of oversized, lopsided teeth. Overall, he looked like a man who had just been released from somewhere. I wondered if he had a destination. Somehow, I doubted it.

“I just got back from Baghdad,” he said. “My plane just landed. You are the first civilian I’ve had a conversation with.”

“Really.” I said. I could feel myself switching into journalist mode. I carry with me lists of questions I’d like to ask various people, if only I could meet them. “What was it like to have the terrible skin-eating virus?” “What were you thinking, downloading child pornography at work?” “How do you blow out your hair so straight when you only have two hands?”

Right now, “What is it really like in Baghdad” is near the top of my list, so I started at the top and worked my way down. “How long were you there?”

“Thirteen months.” He came around and stood in front of me, lighting a flaccid Newport. “I was in Kuwait first, then Baghdad.”

“Why’d you come home?”

“I injured my shoulder, carrying something. I’m on a 30-day convalescent leave. Physical therapy, then I go back.”

“What’s it like over there?”

“It’s fucked. It’s chaos. Everyone’s trying to kill us. It’s boring.”

“Who exactly is trying to kill you? Rumsfeld says there isn’t a guerilla war; that it’s just
disorganized Baathists…”

He cut me off. “I haven’t heard what Rumsfeld says,” he said, “I don’t watch CNN.”

“Me either.” I said.

He looked briefly perplexed. “These people have no idea,” he continued. “They have no clue what to do or why anything’s happening. Listen,” he leaned closer to me, “The entire population is armed. It’s legal over there for everyone to carry AK-47s. If they want us to stabilize things they need to disarm the population, for God’s sake. What are we supposed to do, shoot everyone?”

“Sounds like that’s what’s happening.”

“No,” he said grimly, “Everyone’s shooting us.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Bring it on.” I held up my fingers, making air quotes.

“Who says that?”

“Never mind. How long you think we’ll be there?”

“Oh, shit, we’ll be there forever.”

“What exactly are you doing over there?” I prodded, “Give me the details.”

“Nothing!” he yelled. He bobbed up and down in front of me like one of those toy wooden horses. Press the button in the bottom, and the horse collapses. Release it, and the horse springs back up. “That’s just it. We have no mission. We keep saying ‘What’s our mission?’ No one knows. I’ll tell you one thing, though,” he jabbed his third menthol at me, “We’re not liberating people. We’re not giving them their freedom. Freedom…fuck. You know, I’d get these letters from Boy Scouts, they’d be like ‘Thank you for giving the Iraqi people their freedom…” he trailed off.

“OK, so what are we really doing over there?” I asked, “Oil?”

“What?” he snorted. “Naw, man, we’re over there because this is the start of total war. Our move to rule the world.”

“That’s really what you think?”

“Uh, yeah. I mean, look at Afghanistan. People still getting their asses shot off. And now Liberia? What the fuck is going on? We don’t even have enough troops in Iraq!”

“This is very interesting,” I said. “Do you think other people over there feel the way you do? How representative do you think your opinion is?”

“Listen,” he said, backing up and flinging out his arms. “Absolutely everyone over there feels the way I do.” He laughed bitterly, raised his voice, “I speak for every man over there, you can believe that.”

“So, you think Bush will get re-elected?”

“Hell, I didn’t vote for him. I didn’t vote for him ‘cause I didn’t like his daddy.”

“OK, so let me ask you this. How can you go back over there? When you feel the way you do about our government, and the reason we’re over there? How can you do that?”

“Oh, I wanna go back.” He looked at me defiantly.

“Why?”

“Because of the boys. The kids over there. I’ve got to help them, gotta watch ‘em. The guy next to me in the hospital – there was no wall, no sheet, nothing. He was 22. He got shot, 6 bullets to the stomach. He put his hand up to hold his guts in, gets his fingers blown off. Then another one in the neck. 8 bullets, this kid took. He was 22. I laid there and listened to him, just listened to pain, you know, the pain of healing. When I left, he shook my hand. That was an honor.” He stopped his pacing and looked straight at me.

“What do you think is going to happen to us?” I said, “I mean, ultimately?”

“We’re going to get our asses handed to us.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Really.”

“Will it be like Vietnam?” I was suddenly, inappropriately excited.

“Nothing’s like Vietnam.” His attention wandered to a limo at the curb, dropping off a woman and her golden retriever. “Airports,” he said. “I got 5 hours here and nothing to do.”

“Are you going to see your family?”

“No, I got no family,” he said. “That’s why I want to go back. No family, no kids, no nothing. I’m 35 – I can take someone’s place over there. So someone else doesn’t have to go. I’m easy to lose.” He smiled at me, looking genuinely cheerful for the first time.

“Dude,” I said, “You need a drink. If I were you, I’d start drinking right now and wouldn’t stop for the next 30 days.”

“No,” he said, “I’m an alcoholic. I sobered up for this war.”

I laughed. “Well, there’s always pot.”

“Now you’re talking,” he said. “You wanna go smoke?” I pictured myself, naked in a hotel room somewhere on the outskirts of Chicago, my shoulders bruised from this man’s twitching fingers. Sweating in the glow of a late-night television while he sat on the floor at the foot of the bed, shaking.

“Uh, no,” I said, “I’ve got a presentation. In fact, I better go to my gate.” I stood up. “What’s your name?”

He looked cagey, uncertain. “I don’t know if I should tell you.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I’m still on active duty. My commanding officer said I couldn’t say anything about what’s happening. I’m not supposed to go around talking about things like this.”

“You can make up a name, then,” I said, “Plus, I don’t know your last name. And I’m never going to see you again.”

“OK,” he agreed. He coughed wetly into his hand and then extended it for me to shake. “I’m Mark.”

I took his hand. “Mark.” I said. “And anyway, you still have freedom of speech, right? You’re still an American.”

“Fuck,” he said, looking thoroughly miserable. “I’m a human being.”

***

I settled into my aisle seat, bound for Atlanta. My presentation was over, and I was going home. Across the empty middle seat, a kid looked out the window. His hands clenched and unclenched nervously in his lap as the other passengers filed on. He turned to me suddenly.

“Look!” he exclaimed, “These planes have headsets!” He brandished the plastic-wrapped package at me. “I’ve never been on a plane with headsets before!”

“Yes.” I replied. What kind of plane has he been on? I wondered. Don’t all planes have them now? He dropped the headset, distracted. “What’s this?” He scrabbled at the back of the seat in front of him. He pushed a button and the airphone fell to the floor.

“A phone!” he shrieked, delighted, “We can call someone in the air!” The boy looked at me, beaming. I noted his almond-shaped eyes set widely in his broad, fleshy face. A light brown mustache struggled at the top of a set of thick lips.

I closed my eyes, making a show of sighing deeply and stretching my legs as far in front of me as the space allowed, and feigned sleep. Beside me, the boy mumbled to himself, raising and lowering the window shade. “Do you want your light on?” I didn’t answer, and he left me alone.

A few minutes later, I felt someone sit down in the middle seat between me and the kid by the window.

“Are you sitting here?” asked Window Boy.

“Yep.” Said another young male voice.

“Goddamn,” said Window Boy. “You got your papers?”

“Right here.” I felt my seatmate lean forward and heard the ruffle of papers in the magazine pouch. “Right here.” The plane sat near the gate, engines ramping down as we idled, waiting in line to take off.

“Why are they turning off the engines?” Window Boy sounded panicked. “Why are we sitting here? What’s going on?” I could feel our row of seats shake as he turned to look behind him. His seatmate said nothing.

“Look!” said Window Boy, changing the subject, “We can call from the air!”

“In the plane?” his seatmate seemed doubtful. “How?”

“Just slide your credit card.” Window Boy sounded smug, a jaded aviation expert.

“Wow,” said his friend. “I don’t have a credit card.”

“Me either,” said Window Boy.

The plane finally began to taxi to the runway. “Goddamn,” said Window, clapping his hands, “Fort Benning, here we come!”

His seatmate sighed. “I hate takeoffs.” I silently agreed with him, my eyes still closed.

“Dude! Takeoffs are the best!”

“How fast you think the plane goes on takeoff?”

“What? I dunno. I’m not into all that funky stuff.”

We lifted off and the boys were quiet, the only sound the static of music from their headphones. Soon, the one beside me slumped into my shoulder, asleep. The kid by the window began snoring. I opened my eyes as the drink cart passed, and ordered a red wine. “It’s on us,” said the flight attendant, looking at me sympathetically.

After a while, the boys began to stir. They watched me drink my wine, looking around thirstily for the vanished stewardess. 

“Look out there,” said Window Boy. “I wish I had me an F-14. You could cut right through those clouds.”

I turned to them. “Are you two going to Fort Benning?”

“We sure are. There’s a war on, ma’am.” Window Boy became serious, suddenly, helping me across the street of my own ignorance.

“We’re going to be mechanics,” his friend said.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Wisconsin,” they answered in unison.

“Do you mind if I ask how old you are?” They both said they were 18.

“Have you ever been out of Wisconsin?”

The kid beside me shook his head. Window Boy said “I have. To California, for the Rose Bowl Parade with my school band.” He stroked his fuzzy upper lip. “I played French horn,” he said gravely.

“Oh,” I said. “Gee, Fort Benning’s going to be a big change for you. Are you scared?”

“Yes,” the boy beside me said simply.

“No way!” said Window Boy, “We’re gonna kick some ass!”

“And where will you go after Fort Benning?” I knew the answer already.

“Iraq!” said Window Boy. His companion folded his hands in his lap and stared straight ahead.

“Hmm.” I said, wanting for some reason to hurt him. “I just met a man back from Iraq. He said things are not going so well. He said we’re going to get our asses handed to us.” I realized that the kid beside me was staring at me in terror. “I mean, not to disparage your whole military thing, or anything.”

“Oh no.” the boy beside me fluttered his hand in front of his face, shrugging politely.

“Pfft. We’re not gonna get our asses handed to us! That’s bullshit! Listen,” Window Boy leaned across towards me, licking his wet lips, “I support our president. He’s doing the right thing. He knows what’s going on. After the Cole bombing, we didn’t do anything!” He snorted. “But after 9-11, we went out there and bombed the shit out of those Iraqis. And now, no one ever hears about Al-Qaeda. They’re gone! And it’s just like little random fire in Iraq.”

“OK.” I said.

Window Boy looked away, satisfied that I now agreed. His friend stared at me, waiting for more.

“Look,” I said, “I know you didn’t ask me for any advice. But I’m going to give it to you anyway.”

“OK.” They both seemed a little too eager.

“When you get to Fort Benning, the best thing you can do is keep your mouth shut. If you listen more than you talk, you might be OK.”

“Oh yeah,” Window Boy waved his hand. “My whole family tells me that.”

“You might have a problem,” said his seatmate, turning to look at him.

I laughed, patting his shoulder. “You’ll probably be fine though.”

“You think so?” He really wanted to know.

“Fuck.” I said. He raised his eyebrows, surprised at my language. “You’re a human being, aren’t you?”