The smell of third world lands. Dry desert air, blood soaked grains of sand. I walk off the plane and it hits me. I feel a warm rush in my belly. My eyes sting from the oil refinery next door and I try to hold back tears of excitement. The sweet rose stench of vomit lurks behind the trash slop filled hesco. Gold comes to mind for some reason. Not the black or tangible kind but, the kind that makes you look for something buried, a treasure waiting to be stolen. I hear the tides not far off, black ravens instead of seagulls. Interesting. They search for death. I hear them as they fight each other over tarnished bones of a lesser species. I feel the hair on my arms stand. The sun introduces itself closer on this side of the planet but unexpectedly it’s not hot, it’s not cool or cold. It’s perfect.
I feel the breeze of sunshine on my face, I shut my eyes and I’m seven years old again. Riding down the long unpaved driveway, inside my fire engine red radio flyer. I hear my grandfather yell out, “faster boy, lean down, let the fear like the air, pass over and through you.” My eyes open and here I stand, like the hair on my arms. My TL tells the bros, 2 hours until the OPORD. We load up.
“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death.” Can you taste music if you listen hard enough? Can you taste fear if you listen close enough? The sun is starting to fall over the hills of Beverly, only these hills are of ancient volcano rock and Beverly fucked herself centuries ago. Feeling the light burn out, it reminds of a time when my energy was as young and vibrant as I had been…it was an Afghan summer, somewhere near the edge of the empire. Two of my brothers, teammates, would both be walking across the river in a few short weeks after that moment. But for now, in my mind, in that precise moment, life is pure. They’ve got their entire lives ahead of them. These two resplendent men seeking a mission of undeniable purpose. Hunters of life. Hunters of death. As husbands, as fathers…as brothers they stand alone together. Yet…here they sit amidst the quiet sands as the sun sets upon them. Here they sit as the ‘No Men of No Man’s Land.’ Here they sit as warriors In Search of the Perfect Deployment. The memory, like my wallet, is always there, ever present in my pocket. Sometimes I’ve got to shift it a bit so that I’m comfortable with where it sits, but it’s always there. The setting sun I see now in my memory is the razor that reminds me to sharpen life’s blade against the stone of discipline. A simple, beautiful, cyclic reminder that another dusk has come, not knowing what dawn will bring. Hail and farewells are skewed in the twilight, yet another reminder to earn the day given by those great men who died greatly.
“To write about life, you must have first lived it.” If I could make one playlist to define my life, what would I hear? Would the music transverse across genres or change from amped to acoustic, from a classical eighty-eight key solo into the rage of metal six strings? Better yet, what is my “walk in” song? The song that drops its beat the moment you breach the door of a house party. My soul is being moved by these thoughts as I prep my gear in the ready room. The mood is always the same. T minus 90 minutes until kickoff. I do the same thing…in the same order…every time. Rituals are more than habits. Making your bed in the morning is a good habit to have. Popping open a small yet robust can of RipIt and yelling “Mountain Top” to ensure the energy Gods bless this pre-game flavor, is a good ritual. I press the play button on my pre-determined playlist simply titled ‘Ready Room BoOM’ and can feel the air run over me and through me. Changing all the batteries in my optics, maybe, the most important thing at this moment. As I conduct my own PCC’s my biggest fear is seeing the light shoot out and what could be the last draw of life. Change the batteries one more time however, and that fear can go sit in the corner. That is really what the ready room is all about, letting the fear find me and then putting it in proverbial time-out until it knows better. Loading rounds into each mag, counting every round even though I know a round on the right and a finger nail down tells me I’ve got 28. I still count. Because the count puts another fear in time-out. Never run out of gold or ammo. Not gold like the black or tangible kind…but gold like blood, ammo….life support. I run through this same ritual time after time. Each time is the same but yet the flavor is always unique. It’s as though each time I carry out these rituals in the ready room they have their own print, their own smile.
“Death is like an old whore in a bar–I’ll buy her a drink but I won’t go upstairs with her.” Thoughts are ever present, thoughts I control through ritual. As Pressfield says, “There are rooms in the mind you must never enter, seeing your own death is one of them.” Those doors are open and ready to walk in if I allow my thoughts the freedom of movement to do so. Knowing this I walk by those doors labeled off-limits, trying to not even catch a glimpse of what lies beyond the threshold. Other rooms have white lights leading to red lights and a giant blinking green neon sign reading “Room is Open.” These are always thoughts of my family, my childhood, my teammates. Time before entering into mortal combat is a wild venture. I accepted the ride years ago. Trying desperately to fight it and exit creates undue sweat on the brow. So with those thoughts I let my mind go where it needs to, enter the rooms that they must, keeping an eye on the door and not letting it shut behind me. Blowing out birthday candles as I was barely big enough to reach over the table. Watching my wife walk down the grassy lawn just before we said I do. Seeing my children look up at me for the first time, or bear hug my leg for the last. Remembering the families of my bros waving a broken good bye as our bus slowly drove away. I allow all of these thoughts to take their due course in telling me where I’ve been and how I got here. The Ripits, the “walk in” songs, the countless rituals of throwing away perfectly good batteries…what’s the point if I forget why I’m fucking doing it in the first place? Five minutes until comm’s checks.
“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” The sun has set long ago. The hair on my arms, settled. This is you, this is me. RC over. Lima Charlie. The thoughts I allow to flow through me are done. Tickets are sold. Ride is closed. The fear that found me, now is crouched in timeout. Deep breaths are all that remain. All is right in the world. Our world. It feels as though the world keeps spinning, yet myself and fellow company have been removed from the continuum. A cryogenic freeze. Mission has priority. Time has priority. Doesn’t matter, all is frozen until the job is done. We’re not to be unthawed until we hear the sweet sound of RTB. Birds on deck. Chalk one. Chalk two. Load up. Three hour flight time. We fly over the preverbal ‘tip of the spear’ a few short moments into transit. Stay focused. Stay sharp. No down time. This is it….we’re all passed the fuck out. Low green glow in the cabin goes black as I hear ten minute call over the net. Again, rituals keep the demons in a cage. I slam a ‘five hour extra strength’ with camo labeling. Because extra strength and camo labeling means it’s going to work time. I thump my can of long cut three times, each time a little harder than the last. “Be with me”…“This is what you were born to do”…“Watch over us”…maybe my God will hear these pleas with that extra beat drop. I load a fat three finger pinch into the left side of my bottom lip. “Fuck yeah bro” is exchanged to the man on my right. Fist bumps passing around the pit like joints by the fire. The beauty of killing that five hour energy followed by the dip is that it’s the perfect size spit cup for the remainder of my flight. Five minutes out. Please put your seat and tray table into their upright and locked positions. Unfasten your seat belts. Tubes down, time to get our G on. Blind press check on my long sword, because press checks are free and no man ever tells of the time he had a ‘Dead Man’s Gun.’ Optics rolled full right. Leash unclipped and stowed. Two point sling, slung, free flowing and just fucking perfect. Mags upside down, brass to the grass, unobscured. I slightly lift each one out of its taco, making sure these four amigos are ready to play pin the tail on the donkey when the time comes. Pack on, an upper torso shimmy…no rollovers, shoulder straps exactly as they should be. I give my old shot up shoulder a wiggle and shake. “Wake up.” My pop-eye band-aid covered knee pad with sharpie drawn cracks and bullet holes, usually hanging around my ankle is brought up and around my cranky, shot up knee. I too give it a wiggle and shake and a commanding “wake up fucker.” Two minutes out.
Silence is louder still.
I hear the rotor whip. But it’s a slow motion type of force.
Whoop…whoop…whoop…whoop, as each blade cuts the sky.
Blackness fills the air.
Underneath my nods, I see mythical midnight creatures, dark silhouettes of our nation’s finest, strait off the cover of a Tom Clancy novel, a painting of bushido in the night, and it hits me…the smell of spearmint gum gives me intestinal fortitude. Rituals are more than habits.
“Cowards die a thousand deaths, but the brave only die once.” Thirty seconds out!! Doors slam open!! DEEP BOX BREATH. Four in. Hold 3…2…1. Four Out. Hold 1…2…3. I am The Tiger in the Lotus. Release. Rinse. Repeat. Focus. The unknown neighborhood a hundred feet below grabs my undivided attention. The heat of the aircraft engine storms into the cabin telling me to go off safe. I stay focused. My thumb rubbing the switch, like I’m reading porn in brail. CRACK CRACK CRACK!!! Tracers light up the cabin! “FucKin mother fucker!” The door gunner stamps his time card with .50cal thuds. He keeps stamping. Thud thudthudthudthudthud. RPGeeeeeeee SEVEN O’Clock!!! As our pilot pulls our G’s and my uvula hangs in my balls sack, micro thoughts dance in the peep holes of those forbidden closed doors. We drop below the tree line. “Time to get the fuck off this whale.” “Holy Fuck.” I think I’m losing my cool when I lock eyes with my TL…I see him put his shemagh up around his nose and mouth…just after he flashes me a smile. I think of grieving parents, crying over flagged draped coffins, if they knew the true bond of brotherhood, the purity of that moment, they would grieve just a little less. Brown out. Go! Go!! GO!!!! Guns up! Ten yards out…Prone. My NVG’s pixelate, desperately searching for data. Birds push the last reminder of home onto my back as they exfil off target. The sand settles. More silence. I’m moving onto my trusty knee pad as I look left and right. The pain of a previous, darker conflict, has my attention, but I love seeing white teeth protrude through thick black beards under a white-green hew. RC to higher…Time check…Grid check. Long silent pause…the kind that only a beating heart can tame. Hand signal passed from the front. I’m on my feet. Falling into order of movement. I feel that same breeze on my face as sweat drips down my back. I hear my grandfather again as we approach the compound in my radio flyer.
SILENCE broken by footsteps creeping across the scorched earth.
BaTBaTBaTBaT..the distinct rounds of kicking AK tells me to lean down!!! Muzzle flash, from the darkened abyss ahead, outlines the tree line. Go faster. Let the wind flow over me. Tracers zip and crack as I feel the air desperately trying to flee the subsonic round. In unison, our column drops, “CONTACT FRONT!!!” all repeat, “CONTACT FRONT!!!!!” as we put an aggressive knee forward, showering steel into the void. Let the wind flow through me. My thumb finally gets its fix and allows my finger to cough. All in the world now moves in slow motion. Slack…Squeeze. Slack…Squeeze. Out of the corner of my eye each piece of brass ejects itself as his buddy eagerly awaits in line to move into the fight. The earth moves, we move…“UP!!” repeated…“MOVE!!!!” repeated…we are heated cylinders in the engine of an F-1…we are bushido lurking in the night.
There is unpaved road under my feet. The air is on my face…fear is passing over me and through me. Faster boy, lean down. I open my eyes. Breath in, breath out. I step forward. My grandfather smiles.
“The thing is…in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing.”– Ernest Hemingway