War and History Fiction posted July 24, 2012


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Memoir from Desert Storm

A Lawnchair on Mars

by Bill Schott

Like the first brush stroke on a pristine canvas - the first form on the painting - whatever was out there was foreign to all the rest. A box, a man, a truck, the shitter - anything. Anything -- framed in sand. Three -dimensional sand. Sand as far as the horizon. Like a sea of beige that stretched to the limits of sight, until the pale cerulean sky allowed a moving cloud, to assure me that time had not stopped there in the endless, empty panorama of the Sahara Desert.

I had been reading Lonesome Dove, a western. I hadn't picked up a western since my Louis L'amour days. The First Fast Draw, and those Sackets. That was fifteen years ago. No one wrote good westerns anymore. There was that perverted, sadistic, formula crap for a while, but you had to be between shock treatments to read that garbage. But this one, Lonesome Dove, it was really good. It wasn't hard for me to picture myself in a west Texas lash-up like McMurtry was describing. The desert was quite accommodating in that regard.

Between the book and the occasional stroll around the perimeter, I had been working on another letter to my wife. This would be the Fifty-five-page Letter now (65 if the mail didn't go out again today). I had been telling her all about me. We had been married for four years and she had asked me many questions about my past. She had asked me about Okinawa. What had Korea been like? What happened in Beirut? What happened with Karen, with Mary Ann, with Yvonne? Why didn't I ever talk about any of it? Now I did. It would all be in this - tome. The encyclopedia of Billy. My last letter.

I was looking out through the windshield of the humvee (high-velocity, multi-wheeled vehicle [HvMwV] ) as Corporal Holcolm was walking out to take a dump. Modesty, and the relentless quest for hygiene, required that one walk far from the compound in order to defecate. Unlike the mountains, or swamps or frozen tundra, there was no hill to go below or tree to squat behind. You just had to keep walking straight out until you were relatively certain that you were as small to any onlooker as they were to you. Once a five-ton truck looked like a Cracker Jack prize, it was a safe bet that no one would be gawking at you. The 'shitter', which one carried with him to the eventual deposit area, was just an ammo crate with both ends knocked out. It was big enough to take a load off while you fed the flies and the dung beetles. The quest for hygiene normally subsided after the sun went down, and the men would only walk out as far as it would take to not have to see their masterpieces in the light of the following day.

This day hadn't been too hot. It was about a hundred, most likely. Most everyone had peeled off their clothes and applied their sun block. Sunglasses, sun block, lip balm, baby wipes, Jolly Ranchers, and a couple of bottles of Arabia's Finest aqua pura were the main items in the desert warrior's kit bag.

Someone from the battalion had entered the compound and had set up a situation map towards the center, near the XO's vehicle. The battery gunny had us all form a horseshoe around that area so that our visitor from the Puzzle Palace could bring us up to date on the Desert Storm Operation.

I wish we hadn't seen the briefing map. The plan was rather complex, so the marines only received a quick scenario from the S-2. They showed us the big picture. There was Kuwait; there was Iraq; there was Saudi Arabia. As the others knelt to listen, I pulled up my portable lawn chair and sat down. It fit in my sea bag so I brought it. Warriors need to know how to kill and be comfortable. I noticed, off to my left, that a dung beetle had carved his treasure out of someone's pile of pooh and was rolling it merrily northward. That would take him to the briefing map. Beyond that, if he kept going, he would end up in Kuwait. Dung beetles use their long forelegs to shape large hunks of dung into balls. Then they roll them home. Their whole world was in a little ball of dung - a little world of shit.

"We are in a world of shit!" was Corporal Holcolm's comment, as the Intel lieutenant pointed to the strongholds of the Iraqi Army. The young officer had colored the Iraqi forces in red and our forces in blue. As I looked at the map, which was a topo map, depicting the actual operational area as it really looked, I saw a large, beige square. The large beige square, the map, was eight feet across and eight feet high. The upper half of the eight feet was almost completely red. The right half of the lower portion of the map was also quite red. What I would compare to the size of the Great Salt Lake, as seen from a lawn chair on Mars, was a tiny blue inkblot that represented -- us.

After the briefing, I briefed the men in my platoon. I first assured them that we had the finest flak gear, the most proficient chemical masks, the top laser deflectors, the thickest sandbags, and the best training in the world. The world, I thought. A little ball rolling north.

That night I finished Lonesome Dove. By flashlight I scribbled down things about Karen, Mary Ann, and Yvonne. I wrote about Ms. Pok in Yunjago, and Inga, the German girl at the Hotel Lawtonia. There was a red-head, a drive-in movie, and a car chase. There was Diane-somebody, somebody's cousin, and there was the widow and how we spent the night of the wake. Then there was the sea. The weeks at sea. Puerto Rico, Japan, Korea. I wrote it all down as fast and as much as I could. The fifty-five page letter was getting to be the seventy-five page letter. I wanted her to know about the armory and the suicide, the homicide, and the Root. I shared with her the explosion, the digging, the bodies - the pieces of bodies. The bags of parts, parts waiting to be pulled from the bag and put into a bag with the rest of its body. The face in the sand. The "mask" that the private had been reaching for that was suddenly recognized as a face without a head. The face that will forever be at our feet, hoping that someone will put it in a bag. I wrote it all down and finished the ninety-five page letter. She would know me now.

The water truck arrived the next morning. Our forklift unloaded the sixty or so pallets of bottled water and the truck driver collected all the mail going south. My phonebook-sized correspondence was off to Camp 15, and then America. As much as I didn't want to die, I felt that it was going to happen anyway. I felt that whatever I had said or done before I got here was how it would be. Whoever I smiled at would remember my smiling face. Above all, whoever read that last letter, would know that I was in love with her and that she was the high-water mark of my life.

As it turned out, we carpet bombed the hell out of the Iraqi positions until the remaining soldiers left the instant graveyards and took their chances with the devil spawns of the United States. Those that remained in their positions did so out a sense of being quite dead. FAI (fuel air ignition) bombs had crushed vehicles and equipment by sending thousands of pounds of pressure downward from the air explosion above an enemy position. DPICM (dual-purpose improved conventional munitions) artillery shells, deployed at regimental strength, obliterated enemy artillery units.

As quickly as they died, the desert would begin absorbing them. Sand, like an unsleeping artist, grain by grain, would reclaim the auburn earth; cover the last form on the tragic painting, and opaque the crimson brush strokes, leaving a new pristine canvas.

The Iraqi peasants that survived, those impressed into service to be fodder on the front lines, surrendered to anyone and everyone. They surrendered to news correspondents; they surrendered to an unmanned reconnaissance aircraft the size of a go-cart; they even surrendered to each other. They were all starved and frightened and each was anxious to receive a nice warm bullet in the head. Unfortunately they had to settle for food, a short confinement, and a trip back home to 'Fagdad'.

After Kuwait it was GO WAIT for the rest of us. We sat in the desert for another six weeks. Corporal Holcolm, who had shaved his head prior to our entering Kuwait, was now happy that he had this time to grow it back. He wasn't one for the 'high and tight'. He just figured he'd look better in a coffin with one. Now that he would be heading back home, the James Dean look would again be developed.

We finally received some of those Red Cross packages that we had heard the HQ poags were bogarting back in the rear. The First Sergeant scarfed up all the cigarettes to allow for an even distribution among the afflicted. There were playing cards and magazines, but what I found, on the bottom of one of the boxes, was a collapsible metal easel, an oil paint set, and a fourteen by twelve inch mounted canvas. I hadn't painted for years. I recalled how relaxing and time-consuming it could be; just what I needed.

I had only the one canvas. Whatever I placed on it would be my statement. I set up the easel and dabbed out some colors on a pallet. I had only begun when the sandstorm came. They were always a little ominous as they would rise up on the horizon like a tidal wave, then move forward like the dust of a giant, invisible cavalry. I had hurried to get into the humvee, forgetting that the easel was still standing out alone as the wind and sand drove through. Trapped inside the vehicle, I opened an MRE (meal, ready-to-eat) and withdrew a freeze-dried pouch of pears. After a half an hour or so I must have fallen asleep, and remained that way through the night. The next morning I saw that the sand had practically buried the standing vehicles and equipment that had blocked the path of the particle rock. I looked for the canvas and easel in the general area, and found only the canvas, a few paces away from where the easel had stood. I found it with an anonymous artist's "masterpiece," having been dropped from a squatting rectum, standing as if it were a brilliant sculpture, in the center of a taut, cloth rectangle. I could also see that a dung beetle had assessed a portion of the artwork and wheeled it off to his own private gallery.

Then, of course, the word came. "C-S-M-O!" was the shout from the First Sergeant. We quickly began gathering up our belongings that had somehow managed to sprawl from our vehicle to encompass a four-hundred-square-foot area. It now had to be snatched up and rammed into our humvee. Within ten minutes we were packed into the vehicle and headed south. We remained busy and moving for the next three days as we drove back down the length of Saudi Arabia to Camp 15 and then Riyadh.

We would be leaving all the vehicles in Saudi. Uncle Sam had sold them all to King Fahd, along with a few Harriers, a few howitzers, and a lifetime supply of chap-stick. All we needed to carry out was our ALICE packs, sea bags, and weapons. The canvas and easel would not have fit in with what we could take out anyway. I couldn't have carried it with me. I would leave it all there.

I left that desert. It became a story in my mind that I seldom tell. The time I spent in the middle of that cinnamon sea improved me. I learned more about value, and I learned a lot more about perspective. I shared my life with a woman who was 12,000 miles away, in a way that I might never have dared.

If I ever paint this scene, it would have to begin with a small blue dab, or a soft cinnamon circle; the perspectives of that world as I had seen it then. The Great Salt Lake - pushing north into the Red Sea. The dung beetle ball - a world shaped by what you are given, and kept in motion until you get back home.



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