Thursday, December 14, 2006

The long ride back

It was already 1730 and all of the Ironhorse flights just dropped from the schedule. Shit. There’s no way I want to stay out here another night, but sticking around hoping for Space-A on one of the remaining Catfish Air helos is looking less and less promising. Air flow is always sort of iffy over here, and it can really screw up your plans when you can’t catch a ride.

I drop my pack to think a sec. I am traveling alone, which is in my favor because I don’t have to worry about finding seats for anyone else. I have a can of tomato soup, so I won’t go hungry. And I have my rifle and 120 rounds, so I figure whatever happens I’ll be okay. So how to get back??? Well, I’m not so sure about that yet, but if I can just think…. think… I wish I knew the convoy schedule. What else is there? PSD? Not unless I know someone… How about the parking lot? There are always groups of vehicles forming up there. For sure one of them will be heading towards Liberty Main. Well, anyway, it’s worth a shot.

Ten minutes later I had found my ride – three battered humvees under the command of a grey-haired Sergeant First Class from the Baghdad Division. Like many of the trucks out here, they sported both green and tan livery, as if pieced together from the parts of several different vehicles. In the turrets were two fifties and an M249, a reassuring array of firepower. I suppose it’s sort of sad when you stop to think about it, how being surrounded by devices designed for no other purpose than to kill other human beings can be reassuring. I think too much. Strapped on top of the hoods were coils of razor-sharp concertina wire, while bright orange aerial recognition panels graced the trunks. In addition, one vehicle carried a stretcher, just in case.

The Sergeant offered me the front right seat of the middle humvee, typically reserved for the convoy commander. It’s always a little bit awkward, hitching a ride like this. On one hand, a major is not high enough ranking to be chauffeured around like a general, yet I almost always outrank everyone else. Although I already new the answer, I asked the Sergeant “Are you the convoy commander?” “Yessir.” “Then take the convoy commander’s position, Sergeant.” He smiled and I knew that we’d come to an understanding – this would be a good ride.

By the time we’d passed through the entry control point, dusk had fallen. It was completely dark, and I was a bit un-nerved. It’s very spooky to drive through a darkened city, and, although I knew Baghdad still had power problems, this was something I hadn’t expected. It was almost apocalyptic, like being surrounded by the remnants of some long lost civilization whose inhabitants had mysteriously departed, leaving behind only the flickering shadows of what had been. No one spoke as we continued down the darkened streets, turrets cranking left and right, headlights blazing. This must be how a cat burglar feels, I thought, just at the moment where he’s broken in and is listening to see if he’s alone.

As it turns out, we weren’t entirely alone. Adjusting to the darkness, I could see shadows moving in the alleys and behind curtains in the occasional candle-lit room. Ominously, I also noticed several figures flitting on the rooftops. “There’s someone up there.” “Yeah, I’m tracking…one on the left too. Let one and three know. Lets speed up a bit through here.” “Roger that, bossman - I don’t think I wanna be here any more than they want us here” whispered the driver. “Okay, how about you just drive and I’ll worry about whether anyone wants us here?” “Aw, bossman, don’t be like that….”Whooosh!! A red flare streaks into the sky on the right. “What’s that??! Shit, ‘you see that?” “Okay, okay, don’t get spooked - it’s too far off to be for us, just keep it steady…” “Guns, watch your night vision.” (it takes 15 to 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark, and, once adjusted, gunners are routinely reminded to avoid compromising their vision by looking at bright lights).

Then, in the not too far distance: BAM BAM BAM BAM!! “Guns, let three take it – keep to the left. Don’t open up until you see something. ‘You hear me? What’s goin’ on up there?” “I donno yet… I don’t think it’s for us.” BAM! Thunckathunkathunka!! Tracers streak through the sky several blocks to the right. As we pass the intersection I can see a check point two blocks down, Iraqi’s fighting their own little war. After a minute or two the driver asks “We’re supposed to call in all small arms fire. Should I call that in, Sergeant?” “If you call it in, we’re gonna have to go and check it out. Lets let it rest for now and see what happens.” We drive on.

There are hardly any cars out because of the curfew, and we make good time. We pass a deserted police station. “They blew that one up and we built it right back up. So they blew it up again,” says the grey-haired Sergeant. “I don’t know whose stupider, us or them.” “How long did it take to build the station up?” asks the driver. “I dunno, maybe three months?” “And how long did it take ‘em to blow it up?” What are you getting at, wiseass?” “Just that I think I can tell you whose stupider….” Aw, shut the hell up.”

Here and there we come across patches of electricity where some enterprising soul has installed a generator and scrounged enough gasoline to keep it running. One particularly well-lit but apparently empty villa reminded me for some reason of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, where the wind-blown shutter is nonsensically tap tap taping against the key of a radio transmitter that someone forgot to turn off, long after the station had been abandoned. “Don’t forget the turn this time, number one” says the Sergeant quietly into the radio.

As soon as we make the turn onto Ar Rabi Street I know something is up. There are lights ahead, shining right at us… a check point. Check points are always tense, and even more so at night. “Bobby, do we have a CP out here tonight?” “I don’t know, Sergeant. They won’t answer on Guard and I can’t raise the Sheriff” All three humvees slow to a crawl. “Can you tell if they’re ours?” “I can’t see…” The Sergeant makes the call: “Guns forward.” Even I know that this is a dangerous move. Pointing weapons at a checkpoint might be considered a hostile act, and there are no warning shots out here. On the other hand, you don’t want to be caught in a situation and not have your weapons ready.

Reacting to the movement of the turrets, a small searchlight instantly floods light onto the humvees. We stop, and for a minute the city fades into silence. “Steady, guns.…” I hear the quiet tread of boots approaching. There are two of them, one to ask questions, and one to provide cover. Finally, they step into the light. I notice the AK and start to take the safety off my pistol just as the first figure speaks. And at the last possible moment my ears hear (in the most beautiful and most welcome Southern drawl imaginable) “You guys gave us a scare. Why din’t y’all call?” A wave of relief as the tension evaporates - it’s a joint check point, manned by US soldiers and blue-suited Iraqi troops from the Ministry of the Interior. “We did, but we couldn’t raise you or the Sheriff either.” “Well, the road should be clear at least as far as Irish [Route Irish]. Y’all have a good evening. Do ya need some water?” “No. Thanks. We’re heading in.”

With a wave, we pulled out and started to make our way out to the main highway. It wasn’t too far from where we were, but I was still a little spooked, and it was still mostly dark in the city. I am usually nervous around Iraqis with weapons, but I have to admit that night even I was relieved to finally spot the little Iraqi Army outpost guarding the on-ramp to the MSR. It turns out that the Deadliest Road in the World wasn’t so deadly that night, and the rest of the ride wasn’t even all that exciting. Peace.