Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Boys I Mean

“The boys i mean are not refined
They go with girls who buck and bite
They do not give a fuck for luck
They hump them thirteen times a night
One hangs a hat upon her tit
One carves a cross on her behind
They do not give a shit for wit
The boys i mean are not refined
They come with girls who bite and buck
Who cannot read and cannot write
Who laugh like they would fall apart
And masturbate with dynamite
The boys i mean are not refined
They cannot chat of that and this
They do not give a fart for art
They kill like you would take a piss
They speak whatever’s on their mind
They do whatever’s in their pants
The boys i mean are not refined
They shake the mountains when they dance”

– ee cummings, The Boys I Mean

An American soldier overseas is a bit confusing at first. My first encounter was at a rooftop pool party at the Belgian Embassy in Kinshasa. The embassy was a tiny little colonial apartment hidden away between the diplomatic quarter of Kinshasa, a quiet little remnant of what Kin la Belle used to be before garbage and refuse poured down the streets, shards of glass lined the compounds, and squatters huts piled up like strewn tin cans over the jungle landscape. It was well put together, and the Belgians, along with some help from some Canadian foreign service workers, had gotten a large group of expats drinking. I can’t remember how we ended up there, but a mish mash of Western faces dotted the roof as we all slowly got drunk and whittled our time away in the DRC.

The soldier was a cut out stereotype from Fort Hood. Assigned to the embassy at Avenue des Aviateurs, he had every look of an American who was a fish out of water, and even though we were just drunk Canadian contractors (known to behave like Russians but speak English), I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

His talk was mostly about back home, about his dislike of the Congo (too hot, not like Kansas) his love of country (Bush wasn’t all that bad) and his naive sense of what they were doing there (America always lends a hand). If this had been my only meeting of soldiers overseas, I might have left with a neutral opinion, hearing so many stories of why America has the reputation it does. Unfortunately, the bar slid as my time continued. I excused myself, hoping for better conversation with a girl in a red dress from the state department, while I left him to be preyed upon by two British Marines just itching to throw him off the balcony. Why? Well, he was an American soldier, and I soon learned why this seemed like a good idea.

Kinshasa is a place for parties. On a weekend, if the timing is right, you hop from embassy to embassy, grabbing a drink here, saying hello to an ambassador there, and maybe sneaking a 40 oz of vodka for the ride home from the grinning bartender. One such party, at the British consulate, I had my first taste of that true Yankee pride.

Two guys happened to wander over to our table, dressed for Long Beach in the Bas Congo. Two of our female flight attendants were out for the night, and subtlety didn’t seem to be their strong point.

“Who’re the girls?”

“Pardon?”

“Hey. I’m roger. We’re American. AFRICOM. Who’re the girls?”

Heavy handed was half of it. They walked like they owned the world, and proceeded to alienate us one by one with macho stories of African subjugation (Oh yeah. We like training these guys. Shitty fighters. Don’t think Africans were ever good at fighting) thinly veiled as commentary. It only turned for the worse when they said it was a “shit posting” and were hoping to get onto something else soon. Needless to say, they didn’t fare well. The girls ignored them, they called them stuck up, and then left to pursue the wives of elder diplomats, eager for anything they could get their hands on.

I never believed in American arrogance overseas, or why they failed to make any dent in Africa. Was it slavery? Was it old cold war mentality? Or was it simply just ignorance? The Chinese were here building roads, making bridges, fixing infrastructure. America came in unmarked Dash 8’s with black suits and mirror shades, and offered nothing more than the chance to be friends with the big dog, throwing scraps and taking everything. Everything seemed out of sync, as if the military had no idea what its top half was doing, and everything was running amok. I still can’t verbalize it. It’s as disjointed as a large African city, dysfunction running through the ranks until the whole thing is a hot mess.

To sum it up, I hope to never see an American posted on active duty again. There’s a raw edge, a mark of mild stupidity, and a scary amount of tunnel vision that goes along with the digital camouflage that still makes my hair stand on end thinking about it.

I was walking the boardwalk in Kandahar 24 hours before I was set to go home in Afghanistan. I had spent the morning watching the live press conference by Obama saying Osama was killed. The drone that oversaw the operation quietly took off while I was fast asleep in my container, the runway a scant 500m from where I was. I could not wait to get the hell out of dodge. I walked the boardwalk for the last time, coffee in hand, overhearing conversations. A group of West Virginian reservists were by the coffee shop, and I stopped for a cigarette. Captain’s bars on all 3.

“Did you hear we got that sand nigger last night?”

“Damn straight. Bet he was dead ages ago.”

“Well we got one nigger, now all we gotta do is get that nigger in the white house.”

I tossed my smoke and walked away briskly.

These are the men watching over you. These are the people who represent you overseas. These are who you send over as the real ambassadors. Sleep tight America.

3 Years.

I used to write with a determined ferocity, so convinced that my words on paper would be an outlet for whatever frustration or passion that leaked out of myself and lay on the page as a testament to my thoughts.

I have to say that changed three years ago, give or take a few days. December 7,2009. I was filled with a new hope, a new adventure. I was staying up in North Bay, preparing for my role with Voyageur overseas in Sudan. I had found out my posting, and was bursting with naive pride at my new situation. I immediately phoned my father.

My father was a man of extreme emotion, of unbridled wonder mixed with the burden of regret. He had been a merchant seaman in his youth, and had traveled the world twice over. He had docked in Caribbean ports and bought bananas from African longboats off the coast of Cote D’Ivoire. He had drifted through the harbours of Hong Kong and Mumbai, and told these stories in passing through my childhood. I grew up with a sense of excitement and danger at the unknown, and secretly harboured my own ambitions at seeing the dark corners of the world, or what was left of them.

His response was unexpected at the time. I understand it now, but the anger from me was still there.

“It’s a bum job and you’ll get yourself killed. You’re an idiot.”

I hung up after a few charged words, and left it alone. Here was a man who was both tempered and sensitive, but the only face I got from him was a condescending dismissal. We spoke few words until the day I left. I was convinced that this was out of some fatherly protection, and that I would come back, hardened and battle scarred from the third world, and we would sit down for a pint and discuss things on an even keel after my first tour.

Life never works out how you plan it.

The night before I left, I sat downstairs, everything packed up and ready to leave. I heard the yell of my mother, a hysterical sound not usually heard from such a stoic woman. I came, and saw my father hunched over, his arm slung around her in the kitchen. Seconds past before I realized he had a heart attack. We sat him in the chair in our living room, and I grabbed his hand, his skin pallid, his hand colder than an icebox.

His eyes seemed fearful, like a man being pushed over a tall ledge into a raging river.

“I don’t want to die.”

Laboured breathing. I gripped his hand as his breathing lessened. His big hand stayed calm. Then a final look.

“I love you all,” he said.

The eyes emptied out, and he rolled back. It had been two minutes since I had come up the stairs.

I got him on the ground, his stomach already emptying out, and went to work on my father. I remember rolling him on his side and trying to remove the fluid from his airways. Then I checked his pulse, rolled him onto his back, opened his airway and started compressions. I later remembered my mother screaming for me to help him, to do something, but at the time it was only “30 and 2” “30 and 2”.

It was somewhere around the 4th round of compressions that I felt his ribs break, feeling horrified but remembering that this was the way it worked. I kept breathing into his mouth, and the smell of onion, something I guessed he had eaten earlier in the day, kept coming up. I remember looking into his eyes, hoping for some sign of life, a flicker or a view into the man who thirty minutes before I could hear laughing from the basement. Nothing. I knew he was dead just before the paramedics arrived.

I sat in the kitchen, my arms folded out onto the linoleum, hearing my mother bargaining with the paramedics, who were taking their time. Why not? It had been ten minutes since the call was made, and no signs of life could be seen.

“he’s a strong man, a survivor,” she said.

I remember the first police officer on the scene was a friend from high school. She looked stern in her uniform, from a family of police, and I hugged her awkwardly, as if it was some sort of thing I needed to do.

After that it goes a bit dark. The official death called at the hospital. The cigarettes outside. The quiet drive home. I remember thinking that I could still catch that plane to Africa tomorrow, somehow shake all of this off as a bad dream. Maybe it was the flight attendant coming back to me. Back to the shouted commands.

“STAND UP. LEAVE EVERYTHING BEHIND”
G
Three weeks later I was in Africa, glad to be away but knowing that I was like a wounded animal, limping along, my actions routine, my conversation small and distant. I was a sound reel out of sync. All I cared about was that I was away.

I haven’t written about my father’s death until now. I haven’t put down any of the feelings I had because I had put up a wall the moment I felt I had failed. I’m beginning to only come to grips with the fact that this came from me stepping up to life, challenging my father to see me as a peer. This involves pushing him away. Ill timing complicated the situation. He died, and I was left feeling responsible for a family who, in truth, didn’t need anyone to look after them.

It’s been 3 years now, and I see the changes and the full circle I had to make. I had dark times and some enlightening moments, but still with a iron cast over myself. Time heals all wounds, and I’ve had to take the long route just to get here. I’m finally comfortable talking about it, and it’s a step.

At night, especially in the hum of a dispatch office, waiting for the day to start, I’m left alone with thoughts; left with ideas of what that beer might have been like, what our stories might have been. On most days, however, I’m left with a sense of pride of my father, with both his failures and his humanity. I miss him, I remember him, and I smile. I remember his enthusiasm for words, and I’d think he’d like me to write again, even the dark and unsettling parts.

I love you dad. Thanks for helping me get this out.