This blog is about going beyond canvas to create things. I created a book based on the following short story that I wrote. Most of the names have been changed to protect the anonymity of those within the story, but it is based on my own personal experience. This book was extremely painful for me to put together. It included pictures, notes from home, notes from men who are dead, and official commendations and orders. I apologize for the lack of pictures, I’ve donated the book to a collection, so the opportunity to take them has passed. I have been toying with the idea of making another book featuring this story. I wrote this story for an assignment in a creative non-fiction class to fulfill the requirement to write a memoir. Many of my experience, like this one, are included in my other works of art. I was heavily influenced and effected by this time in my life. I hope that you’ll enjoy the story, and provide feedback regarding an artist’s book including it.
It was pitch black when I stepped outside. That fact shouldn’t have surprised me, since I’d been at my desk since dawn, but it did. I had been here three days now, and had just put in my first day’s work. My orientation was over. The grumbling ache in my stomach is what finally convinced me to leave my desk. The DFAC was only open for another thirty minutes, and I could get the food to go and be back at my desk in under fifteen. The night air was cool against my face, not as cold as it had been. It was still, something that pleased me as I stepped out into the night.
I had yet to master the art of walking in the darkness, I could barely navigate through the gravel covered compound in the daylight. Twisted ankles and torn ligaments were common injuries because of the loose stone ground. Tonight was a stark contrast to the days. There were no cars, no voices carrying on the breeze, no tanks. There was only the soft indistinct crunching through the gravel we stragglers were making. There was a moon, it was just a sliver, but it was there looking just like the moon over south Texas had looked ten days ago.
Thanks to two days of orientation courtesy of Captain Ramsey, I knew where the DFAC was supposed to be. The Captain’s tour guide attitude towards orientation left my head spinning. She was far too happy to be explaining how to survive here. I knew exactly where the Dutch had their dark, smoky bar and I knew that Salsa dancing was on Wednesday nights, but I didn’t even know what a bunker looked like.
My question about the bunkers had been waved off by a grinning Captain, her big sparkling eyes and deep dimples reassuring me no more than her words. “Um, they’re around. I’ve never even been in one. It’s always quiet here.” Then she asked me to teach her to drive a stick shift. This was my orientation.
I found my way to the dining facility simply by following the dim outlines of the others that were out and about at this time of night. There wasn’t a line and it didn’t take long for me to discount most of the food and grab a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a couple of caffeinated sodas to take back to the office with me. My office was located in the old Kandahar International terminal, well, what was left of the terminal after US troops dropped a five ton bomb on it during the initial invasion. The interior was dimly lit, and covered in black soot, with offices carved out using plywood boxes. I had just gotten my desk, and had put out pictures of my kids, friends and family in an effort to remind me of home and to cheer up the blank wooden walls.
I thought about the stack of files sitting on my desk, waiting on my review. I had 300 files to get through before the work started in earnest the next day. I had made it a quarter of the way through before breaking for food, and just thinking about how late I would be in the office had my mind whirring through the different changes that I would need to make so that my job would be effective. I balanced the Styrofoam to go box with a canned drink in one hand, and my small penlight with the other. The penlight was the only illumination allowed after the sun went down, and even then, we were told to keep them pointed straight at the ground.
Waving them around made you a target, and being a woman here made me enough of a target. I would be the only woman in my office of seven in three more days when Captain Ransey redeployed to home. I would be the only woman, aside from the local cleaning lady that would be allowed to set foot in the Special Forces compound, my assignment and the source of all 300 of my files.
I had yet to meet any of “my boys” yet. That would begin tomorrow when I turned on the slide projector and taught 15 Alpha males capable of killing me with their thumbs how to avoid going to jail by spending the tax dollars they were given in a legal and responsible way. I would be handing over a portion of my Congressionally granted authority to 15 strangers that were considered the most elite group of fighters that our nation could produce.
I thought about these elusive men, the Special Forces. These men that would become my brothers and protectors as I carefully navigated my way back through the compound. It was so still and quiet, and the perfect sort of night for walking and thinking. I was curious about these toughest of the tough. I was under no illusions that I could fit in with these men. I was here to ensure that they had the protection, housing, and clothing that they needed to successfully complete their missions. I didn’t know then just how important these men would become to me, or how important I would become to them.
I was rattled from my thoughts when I stumbled. My first thought was that the gravel had nearly claimed another victim; that I’d nearly fallen down due to its naturally unstable nature. That was until the second jolt. The third followed quickly and I was convinced that I was living through my first earthquake because it was still deathly silent.
The silence seemed to stretch for hours, but lasted only a few seconds. I was in the process of looking around to re-orient myself as to where my office was when the silence ended. I saw my office building 50 yards directly in front of me. The hulking black mass was illuminated from behind by an orange glow.
I started my first tentative step after the earth moved when the whistling began. It sounded like a hundred kids letting go of overly full balloons. The silent night was full of the cartoonish sound. The earth shook again beneath my feet as I stood frozen there, unsure where to go. My orientation was not failing me. I still didn’t know what a bunker was.
A particularly loud whistle, like a bottle rocket set off far too close to me shocked me into movement and I began walking towards my office with my thoughts on nothing but the photographs that I’d just hung on the bare wood walls. My heart was pounding in my ears, and I no longer heard the whistles as I made three steps forward before the sound of the explosion reached me and I jumped and froze again.
The sirens began then. I knew the sirens. Orientation on the sirens had happened at my home station by people more concerned with my making it back home than Salsa lessons. We were under attack. I had no idea what kind of attack, and I still didn’t know where I was supposed to go or what I was supposed to do.
I blocked out the orange glow in the sky, the whistling sound, even the moving of the earth beneath my feet and with long determined steps, I started forward. My goal was to get to my desk. My heart raced in time with the sirens, and my footsteps matched its tattoo. I saw nothing but the door to the building.
I don’t remember much more than that door. The flimsy plywood door hastily bolted to the concrete arch of the old, bombed out terminal building. It took less than two minutes, and it’s two minutes that I have no recollection of. After the realization that I was standing in the open, unprotected and unprepared during what turned out to be the deadliest attack on the base during my tenure, my thought processes shut down. I made no conscious decisions, but merely reacted on the instincts that had been trained into me. It was fifteen minutes later before I realized that I was sitting at my desk, still clutching my Styrofoam to go box and soda.
The ringing phone brought me back to my grim reality. I had been trained at my home base, oriented here, and I still didn’t know how to survive. I was helpless in this place where the silent nights whistled death’s arrival. It was with that grim reality settling in around me that I picked up the phone and with a small, shaky voice answered, “Contracting, Hewett.”
The deep bass of the answering voice was strong, and reassuring with its responding answer to more than my greeting, “Hewett, this is Major Kramer. We need you, I’m sending over some boys to look out for you.”