(23 March 2005)
The easy, firm way the Black Hawk springs into the sky brings a smile to my face; there’s no thrill of acceleraton or sensation of blasting into the sky, just a binary transition from earth to air, like flipping a light switch.
The sun hasn’t come all the way up and I’m on my way to Butler Range again.
We wheel east, into the rising sun; a noxious mix of burning trash and other industrial smells floats over Baghdad in a visible haze, making the occasional radio tower poking out of the fog look like it’s thirty thousand feet tall and we’re in a jetliner cruising above the clouds.
I’m sitting in the front row of seats, next to the left door gunner, so I can see the pilots and their instrument panel. As we leave Liberty, one of them pulls out a military map and starts folding it. Later I saw that he had folded it to fit on his knee-board, but at the time I imagined their dialogue: “Any idea where we’re going?” “Nope, not a frickin’ clue.” I couldn’t hear their words but they seemed to be chatting casually, like a couple of guys on a road trip; at one point, as the sun blazed over the fog, one pilot whipped out his digital camera and started snapping away through the windshield.
The gunner on my side is scanning actively, looking all around the chopper for signs of trouble. Somewhere over the city, we slam into a hard left turn and I see sun-bright green flares streaking away from the aircraft, leaving white smoke trails. Something must’ve triggered the countermeasure system (maybe a glint of orange sun off of standing water?), and the gunner is straining to look behind the chopper, searching for the smoke trail of a missile. Thankfully, nothing was there.
Meanwhile, the right side gunner is probably asleep. He has a fleece jacket over his knees like a little girl (the wind being a little cool in the morning), and he has a bungee cord attached to the grip of the M60D machinegun in the door to keep it from wandering around. He has the dark visor on his flyer’s helmet equipped, despite the early hour, and though his back is to me, I can just about see the cartoon-bubble Z’s floating away from his green-armored head.
In the city below there are still great pools of standing water from the rain a few weeks ago. On the outskirts of the city, the water has turned the earth shockingly green, great stripes of life painted haphazardly across the brown dirt and through muddy ditches. Further out, I can see flocks of what I assume to be shorebirds, clouds of white specks skimming the water that will soon be gone.
We arrive at Butler Range after the sun is all the way up. I awaken the Pontiff from his slumber and dispense my precious cargo (brought to you by Chef Boyardee, Skoal, and Camel).
That night, in our meandering discussion of our strange deployment thus far and the things that lie ahead, the Pontiff paraphrases a line from Jack Bauer in the show 24: I’m SGT P, and this is the worst day of my life. He applies this line to every day of our deployment; despite my cynicism, I’m more optimistic than that.
No sooner do we stop talking when the pitter-patter of rain begins to drum on the corrugated steel roof, seemingly from nowhere. “See?,” he says, “it’s always getting worse.” We laugh at the cosmic irony.
“Hey,” I interject, “your roof doesn’t leak, does it?” The Pontiff pauses. “Not that I know of…god damn it, Delobi, why did you have to say that? Now it’s going to leak for sure.” Just to spite us.
We didn’t have to find out, though – the rain stopped almost as suddenly as it had started.