Home > Writing > The Gaps Before The, ‘Go, Go, Go!’

The Gaps Before The, ‘Go, Go, Go!’

I. Chinook

There is something decidedly special about having a helicopter come in for you. The raw power of it is, in itself, a spectacle. You see that power in the way the grass and the leaves and branches on the trees are pressed down, and in the dust flying up all around. The dust storm forces you to narrow your eyes and breathe more carefully, but what you can’t block out is the sound from the blades whipping through the air. Even through your earplugs, you feel the force of the sound.

It was dusk. The blue of the evening was darkening, and there I was, crouched low in the tall grass, watching the sky as the helicopters came in. Their unhurried approach was in stark contrast to the swirling chaos on the ground, but the measured descent of the two great birds was nothing short of majestic.

Then, the ramp opens, and it is time for me to sprint as best as I can with a gun, a field pack and an anti-tank tube in my grip. As I get nearer to my objective, I start to feel like I’m swimming against the current. Am I still breathing in or out, or is it the downwash? My legs are barely bringing me forward, and I am losing my grip on my gear. And then, for a moment, just a step or two before my boot touches the ramp, I feel the heat from the burner. But now, I am in the hold, the last man strapping in. The man on my right helps me with my gear. As I catch my breath, everything is checked and secured. Then, the ramp goes up, and we are flying.

*

The ramp doesn’t actually seal up the hold. There is a gap between the edge of the ramp and the top of the rear opening, so the hold is actually open to the air outside. I am right next to the ramp, and I can see right through the opening. It was evening while the birds were landing, but now it is night, and the city lights below are like what I’ve seen before during take-offs and landings on passenger jets, except that the lights are a lot closer, and we stay at this altitude for most of the twenty minutes. Then again, boarding an Airbus can hardly be compared to the race that is a helicopter load-up, but with a jet the gratification of take-off is nowhere as immediate, plus I’m not even feeling my sweat because of all the air constantly rushing into the hold like when the windows are down when you’re in a car on the highway.

Watching the lights pass by seemingly just below me, I wonder how long the ride will last, and I try not to think of when I’ll be running all out again in the grass and mud. For some reason, I suddenly feel close to the city below me. Maybe it’s because the past ten minutes have been like something from a movie. Then, the helicopter banks, we see the ground through the windows on one side, and we cheer and whoop like the young men we are, everything before and after forgotten. We are flying, and this bird is our ride. I sit back in my seat and enjoy myself, trying not to wish that this didn’t have to end, because I knew that the ride would end.

*

The ramp was lowering. I unstrapped myself, tried to get a good grip on my equipment, and then I was running, first man off the bird. Fifty meters away, I go prone in the grass, weapon at the ready, on the alert, but feeling the weight of my helmet. There were knolls to climb and rivers to cross before dawn. It was as though the mission hadn’t even started.


II. Rain, Leaves, Mud.

 

It would have been an odd sight, had there been anyone to see it. There were about thirty figures, all standing immobile, scattered across the red clay face of the hill. There was no conversation, because no two of them were standing near together. Considering that there were few enough gaps between the trees and not many gentle inclines on the hill slope on which to stand, that the figures were scattered so evenly suggested some deliberation in their placement. They stood like sculptures, strange sculptures, and one suspected that if one were to walk among them they would not have noticed. And over everything, rain was falling, through the trees and branches, trickling down onto their helmets and jackets, flowing down the slope over roots and under brown leaves, turning the red clay into sticky mud.

*

We had reached our objective the day before, after having marched through the night with our boots and uniforms still wet from the river we had crossed. We were beyond tired, but at least we knew what was coming when the order was given. We were deployed to our positions, and after marking them out, we took out our tools and started digging.

What’s digging like? We spent the afternoon brushing away the leaf litter, scraping at clay, all the while trying to keep our footing on the slope, piling up loose earth, which made the slope even more treacherous, and, in between bouts of digging, sitting with our legs in whatever depression we had managed to excavate. But we were done before nightfall, and, having managed that, it was time to grab what rest we could before the next mission. I don’t remember feeling relief, or feeling anything very much at all, as I settled into my hole in the ground, having made it as comfortable as I could.

Very soon, it was morning. It wasn’t light yet, but all the same, it was time to rouse ourselves for the day’s work, which included being prepared for enemy attack. Our traps were layed, and we had made sure that we could find our way around the slope even in the dark should reinforcements be required in another sector. All this had been done the day before. The promised attack came, and fortunately there was only one. We defended, and it ended. After that, stores and supplies were moved or retrieved, and then, we knew, it would be time to move again. The message came for us to prepare.

Then the rain came, just a few drops at first, but, as before, we knew what was coming, and there was no stopping it. We fumbled for our rain jackets, clipped behind us, and tried to put them on as well as we could over our overloaded vests. The hoods came up as well, more to prevent rain from trickling down our necks than to keep our heads dry. We already had helmets on. We also had to move our packs and equipment away from where the water would collect. The rain prompted all this renewed activity, but, gradually, sector by sector, everything seemed to come to a pause.

The message had been passed: we would be moving shortly. Prepare. But we were not moving then; we weren’t moving yet, but, we felt rather than thought, the mission was… over. And so, hoods over our helmets, we stood by our holes in the ground and watched them fill up. We just stood, still, for five or maybe fifteen minutes, or more, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. If we shifted our weight or moved our boots, the red mud would shift and squelch; but there were many reasons not to move. We weren’t supposed to go down yet. Our wet socks squelched in our boots whenever we took a step. Sitting down was too much trouble, there was mud everywhere. We’d have to start covering over our shell scrapes soon. We were just waiting for the order.

And perhaps it was just that: we were waiting, in an in-between kind of moment, where we’d otherwise have been waiting at the ready. Or perhaps, even if we had been told to be on the alert, we wouldn’t have been, because we were wet again, miserable, and, after the past three days, exhausted. And there were two days to go. So we stood, kept in place by the mud and a dearth of motivating energy, perhaps extinguished, literally inter-mission, waiting to be galvanized by the next order. It would come.

*

They stood, it seemed, for a long while, hardly moving, water dripping off them like off cold stone.


III. The Candle Dryer

 

I remember a darkened room, quite large, dimly lit despite the combined power of our torches. Later, it was candlelight flickering against the walls. Those hadn’t been lit for illumination, however; the light came from inside our still-wet boots. There were just nine of us, fortunate to have been excluded from the primary mission, spread out along the walls and in the corners.

Our mission tomorrow would be simple, nothing compared to what we’d already done, and, in the meantime, we had seven glorious hours almost to ourselves. We had a roof, and tonight we’d be as dry as we’d ever been since the beginning of it all. Things were winding down for us. The past few days had been constant tension and movement punctuated by bouts of intense activity, and in one case intense inaction; but this was rest.

For a while, we came a little bit alive. We were still tired, but less deadened, now that the strain of a real mission was off our backs. I am picturing how we huddled around to observe the technique one of our number had devised to dry the inside of his boots, and how for a while after that we were all busy distributing the available materials and passing the lighter around in a combined effort to replicate the technique we’d just learned. I think it was one of the rare moments where we could put aside the stress of being tough, focused soldiers-on-a-mission and be, well, relaxed. In the midst of all that happy activity, I could only smile.

In the morning the boots were dry.


(Ex. Grandslam, 20-23 July, 2009.)

 

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