My Sun Crawls
The lights from our makeshift runway were pieces of shit, pure and simple, and by “runway” I mean a rare piece of paved road in northern Pakistan that itself was barely above the quality of tightly packed sand. The day was two weeks before my 25th birthday, January 9, 2002. The desert wasn’t hot, it sweltered. Fixing one of our 30 remote controlled lights on our runway, I came to the realization that this was the best time of my life…in a sandbox far away from home.
I’m not one to speak for anybody on any subject, no matter how I gauge my expertise in the conversation at hand. I will however, venture to say that when someone sees another human being die, their first thought isn’t about a sunrise that throws a warm glow on the mountainside that has been shivering through the night, but rather some sense of shock and awe. I however, experienced the prior.
We worked hard, in the heat, then would take the “Scooby-doo” bus back to camp and play spades or hearts until an aircraft radioed in for landing. Most of the Marines would actually pray for a call to come in during their turn to deal so the opportunity of everyone missing a deal from the bottom would bring in a quick win, and thereby giving the right to gloat in the dusty faces of the other team. We will all deny cheating to this day, but looking back, the dealer never lost when a plane radioed in. It seems ill-conceived that something like cheating at cards would stick in my head for eleven years, but it did. January was our third month in country, and this was our life.
After fixing the short in our runway light, which brought our capacity to 22 working lights (the minimum), my new buddy of 3 months, Harris and I hopped on the Scooby-doo bus back to camp (named so because minus the 70’s flower patter, it looked exactly like the cartoon van in Scooby-doo). In case the appealing name has you caught up, the Scooby-doo bus was a windowless blue and white bus lent to us by Pakistanis. I should clarify that Scooby-doo had windows, just no glass. It resembled a VW bus that looked as if it had been made of taffy, sat in a child’s pocket until after school and stretched out before eating. I have to hand it to the Scooby-doo, it never had a problem running even though nearly every piece of our military equipment (including humvees) did.
Harris resembled a cartoon. His face was rounded to match every feature of his face. His lack of even a five-o’clock shadow or the military banning of having your own personal hairdo helped to keep him unoriginal. He offered me one of his one-dollar-a-pack cigarettes (also from Pakistan), and we lit up in the back of the Scooby. The cigarette doubled as a smoke to take the edge off, as well as a filter from the jet streams of the floating hot mist that was somewhere between the consistency of sand and dust coming through the windows and tickling our faces. Theory being, we were either breathing Pakistan dust by the liter or breathing through a cigarette, so what’s the difference?
We pulled into camp, which at this point was 6 tents, one makeshift shower and razor wire. That was home, and I was happy to be there because it meant a little spades and downtime. The bus lurched to a slow crawl, just enough to permit me to put out the dust filter cigarette. I looked down at the pack of cancer sticks Harris had given me. They were Camel cigarettes and at the bottom of the pack they read “Smooth American Blend”. If you’ve ever read a pack of camels from America, you’ll notice that they read “Smooth Turkish Blend”. This triggered the last laugh I would have for 6 months. The bus stopped and Harris and I stepped into that odd mixture of sand and dust than enveloped our boots.
I lost that night. Six games of spades and I hadn’t won a single one. I blame it on the lack of incoming supply planes during my deal. Lassiter on the other hand, who was exactly what you would expect out of Detroit, gets a call on his last deal of the night. Harris and I sat up to take the plane in, and as I was bumbling securing on my Kevlar and M-16, I noticed him dealing from the bottom.
Lassiter glanced up, “You boys keep warm now, colder than a muthafucka our there!” accompanied by a slight grin that gave away his cheating ways.
Harris promptly fired back, “Don’t touch my shit.”, and while not the best comeback, it was the common language between Marines, to be roughly translated as “I’ll be right back, can you please watch my things?”
We both broke out another smooth American blend and crackled on the prick (PRC-119 radio).
“Raider-04, how copy, over?”
“Raider-04 inbound, altimeter check” they shot back.
To spare the jargon, Raider-04 was a C-130 Hercules transport plane. The Marines flying it wanted to know the secret number known as an altimeter that would allow them to know where the ground was in relation to their position. As one would imagine, this is an extremely important number.
I gave the number (2030) to Raider-04 and they confirmed. Their next request was to land “runway 22”. We had to deny at the request of the Pakistani people and tell them to land “runway 04”, noisy planes are a nuisance after all. These two runways were the same strip of our lighted and semi-paved road. “22” simply landed from the south and “04” from the North. In other words, we told them no, and to fly over the mountains and land the opposite way.
“Roger, copy runway 04”
I put down the head set, turned the runway lights on (of course we lost another one) and looked at Harris. I thought there was a prank being played on me because of the awkward drag he took of his cigarette. As he inhaled and the cherry got brighter, I noticed the sun coming up out of the corner of my eye. I turned as if almost on a lazy susan to the left to face the sun head-on. It was bright, orange and yellow and a perfect circle. It was a very peaceful moment.
This sun, however, was crawling. It glided in an urgent pace up the side of the mountain, a pace nowhere near the hurried pace a sun sets when you want to play one more hour outside with your friends. My peaceful moment was splintered when I saw what looked like legs coming off of the sun. I couldn’t figure out what it was. By now Harris was staring open-mouthed at this thing as well. The sun now resembled a giant yellow spider, legs shooting out from what resembled the angles of numbers on a clock. This was a giant sunrise that suddenly came alive and started crawling up the mountain face, expanding to the point where it was a near perfect circle. Then the spider lost its drive. Whatever motivated the sun to crawl up the mountain suddenly left its body. The legs arched down and the roundness flattened only to leave a plume of yellow mushrooming up from its resting place. It hit me, that wasn’t the sun, it was an explosion.
Other than panic, loading my M-16 and sitting in a parameter fighting hole until the sun really did rise, seven hours later, I only remember one distinct occurrence on the night of January 9, 2002. I can say with 100% certainty that my desperate pleas of “Raider-04 come in, Raider-04, acknowledge” being answered with an audible crackling that couldn’t be heard unless devoting all attention is the single most haunting 10 seconds of my life. That crackling used to be the ambient white noise that I needed to fall asleep, and is now the noise that slaps me from dreams to nightmares. It’s the peaceful noise one needs until it’s the door blocking you from comfort, the comfort in knowing that what you saw isn’t real. So is the case when you’re haunted.
While I don’t let it take control, I know that I’m the last living person Raider-04’s crew spoke with. There’s an uncomfortable feeling about that; did I give the wrong altimeter or did they copy it wrong, thereby causing the crash? Sometimes I’ll let it seep into my mind that I’m responsible, but the only people that can confirm that suspicion are gone. Sometimes not knowing if you’re responsible for an accident causes you to stare off at a wall when someone is talking to you, this is a lesson I’m an expert at.
I’m not sure if I’m the same person I was on January 8th of that year, or if I’d look at the world in the same manner had I taken a different turn at some point in my life. I’d like to think that the only difference now, is that my sun doesn’t rise, it crawls.
Categories: EVERYTHING (in no particular order)