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Desert Blues

I deployed twice to the Middle East, both relatively short deployments. In 1999 I was at Ahmed al Jaber Airbase in Kuwait, doing some construction for Operation Desert Fox/Southern Watch/Guarded Skies. We had one threat warning that wasn’t a big deal, except at that moment I was in a truck on the far side of the flightline on a road with UXO (UneXploded Ordnance) markers on either side of the road, and nowhere to take cover. Luckily, it was a false alarm. Good times, good times.

In 2008 I was at an Undisclosed Airbase in the Middle East (well, two, actually), which is how the USAF identifies every base unless there’s some need to specify. I was armed with a brand new GUU5P carbine, the USAF version of the M4, with standard sights and a happy switch—full auto instead of burst, and body armor, etc. though most of the time the battle gear was rolled up under my bunk or cot. I never needed it, really.

But everyone has a different war. I’d stayed in well past twenty years in part to make sure I did deploy. I wanted more action. Some people couldn’t handle even stateside callups away from their families and had issues. I know some infantry guys who went six tours, and our powerplant boss was a reservist who did eleven tours—six months over, six at home, repeat.

Regardless of why anyone chose to be there—it’s an all volunteer military, and by 2008, everyone had enlisted or reenlisted after the events of 2001-2003—we chose to be there. It’s a very different environment than anywhere in the U.S., with different people. Part of me is in the Middle East, and part of it is in me. In fact, I have asthma and other lung damage from sand, debris and assorted contaminants. I’ll never forget that place.

But it’s also part of what makes me who I am, and it shows up in my writing. I still have a story in my head that won’t quite resolve the way I need it to. I’ll write it down eventually. In the meantime, there’s this:

* * *

A deployment to the Middle East is like Groundhog Day with sand. Every day, hot, dry, dusty, winds from the north-northwest at twenty-five kilometers per hour. Same people. Same duty. Same crappy music on Freedom Radio. Occasionally someone does something stupid or takes a shot at you, then it goes right back to the way it was. If you’re lucky enough to be there in winter it gets cold and muddy. I was not lucky. I walked through an oven. At least it wasn’t windy, or it would feel like a hairdryer combined with a sandblaster. I had a clean PT uniform, a towel, a kit and a rifle. Just the bare necessities.

One of the very few conveniences (I won’t say “pleasures”) is that after a shower, you dry off in seconds just from the low humidity. I’d taken a shower, was dry and clean and would be until the first breeze blew sand onto me, and was on my way back to my tent when I heard the guitar.

There’s always a person or ten with enough talent to play, but this guy was good. Somewhere a few tents over, he had an electric and a small amp and I heard Clapton’s “Layla.” It was a pretty good wail. He could sing, too. “You got me on my kneeeeees . . .

One of the sucky things was that I was at this remote hole in the middle of the desert to back up the Army. The Army does a lot of things very well. What they don’t do is infrastructure. These poor saps had a growing Contingency Operating Base and couldn’t get enough “big” generators in to power things. That’s because a lot of Army units consider a 25kW generator to be “big,” especially those units that get sent forward.

So, twenty of us Air Force engineers showed up with Christine and Lucille, each 1.25 megawatts of diesel-powered bitch, and a few Environmental Control Units for extra air conditioning, or in some cases, just air conditioning. In that part of the world, it’s pretty much a necessity if you don’t want to die.

Fortunately, their officers knew to slide the orders into the hooch, back out carefully, and let us get to work. We had our own sleeping tent, our own operations tent, and when not taking care of immediate tasks spent the time customizing and comfortizing the amenities.

We all had iPods and such, but good live music was always welcome. The guitarist was better than most of the professional bands who occasionally played for an hour on some USO gig.

He trailed off “Layla” and started some Stevie Ray. Now, this was just too good. I took a detour on my way to the tent to make sure I kept it in hearing.

I just reached the north end of camp where we live when behind me I heard a whoosh and a Bang! Everything shook and flapped, air slapped at me, and I changed direction toward the nearest bunker, which was about twenty feet away.

A lot of people get fatalistic about attacks and just ride them out. I’m older and more cynical. The odds of getting hit are low, but who wants to win the lottery? I slowed quickly as I neared it, used the gravel under my flip flops to brake and steer sideways under the concrete overhead. Just then, someone at the Plant killed the outside lights. Good. Why make targeting easy for the insurgents?

There were bodies already here. I flashed my weapon light on the ground for a half second and in the reflected glare caught two soldiers mostly untangled. The back of her PT uniform was dusty, and so were his knees and forearms. She was pulling her shirt down and blushing thoroughly. Sorry, kids. I wasn’t going to blame them for it, but they were done for tonight.

“Move to the middle,” I said. I heard them scooting across gravel in the dark. I recognized a silhouetted body coming in as my buddy from Utah Air Guard, Paul. Others came in both ends as a second Bang! shook things. It was a pretty good sized one, too.

“I was just going to take a shower,” I heard Lieutenant Smith, the Army Engineer officer we worked through grouse from the other end. “Report,” he said.

“Not much yet, sir,” I said. “No casualties in here, and I was just coming from a shower.”

Pretty much everyone who was going to take cover probably had by now. There were a dozen people in this sandbag-covered pipe, getting as comfortable as possible with gravel under ass, concrete behind back, assorted sharp things, crushed plastic bottles and feet and knees in the way. I folded my towel up and sat on it to cut the jabs from the rocks.

The guitarist was still playing. I heard him singing and riffing. “The sky is crying . . . ” Cute.

“Shouldn’t someone go get him and anyone else left, sir?” The question came from Senior Master Sergeant Richards. I privately called him the Big Dick. He wanted every letter of every regulation and Air Force Instruction followed, even those that contradicted each other. Then he also wanted Army regs followed, including the ones he wasn’t sure about. Of course, he neglected them for himself. He might complain about someone wearing the wrong glasses, wrong hat, dogtags in boots and not around neck, but he usually needed a haircut and left his pockets unbuttoned. I was just glad we were on opposite shifts.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” LT Smith said. He was young but I liked him. Good head on his shoulders for a kid of twenty-two.

“But, sir, SOP is for everyone to shelter in place.” Richards was just like that. Insistent. Was he going to get out and go get people? Had he done so? Nope, but he’d be happy to have someone else order some other someone else to do so.

“He’s fine,” the LT insisted. He sounded bored and annoyed.

I could tell from the shifting that Richards was agitated. He wasn’t going to say anything now, though.


That one was close enough to punch my ears, tug at the air in our little tube and there were gasps and whimpers. Not me. I’d laid these sandbags and trusted them, and knew if I heard it I was still alive. I also felt obligated to set a good example for the young troops, kids really, and for the honor of the Air Force. I didn’t flinch that anyone could tell in the dark. I did pucker up my eyes and my ass, though.

The young woman was sobbing. I could hear mutters and shifting. We were all going to be . . . well, I don’t know what word to use, but there’d be a bond after this.

Someone, either one of our SPs or an Army MP thought they had a target, and opened up with a .50. BaBaBaBaBaBaBANG! BaBaBANG! BaBaBaBaBaBaBANG! hammering and drumming through the night air.

And that was when the guitarist cranked up the volume and distortion. Three chords blared out, and I had a WTF? moment.

I knew those chords.

Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” Raunchy, cheerful, rude.

Then he started singing, loudly.

Listen to them assholes, that ain’t how you do it . . .

And a wave of laughter and cheers just burst out of us.

“ . . . mortars for nothin’, IEDs for free.

Now that ain’t workin, that ain’t how you do it.

Let me tell you, them guys are dumb.

We might get some shrapnel in our little fingers.

They might get a fifty up their bum . . . ”

More small arms fire drowned him out, but I could sense applause from other bunkers, and from the diehards who’d stayed in their tents. It was just the ultimate middle finger to these frothing nutjobs. Whoever he was, he just plain rocked.

. . . who’s got to move these generators?

Who’s got to move these uparmored humveeeeeees?

I was just chuckling over that when—


Everything bounced and shook, and the air slapped me. Holy crap.

The music stopped.

I heard the young woman say, “Oh, no!”

My ears were ringing, but after two decades of working with this gear I could troubleshoot by ear.

“PDP is down. Power Distribution Panel.”

Sure enough, a few seconds later there was a loud click, a buzz that lasted long enough for someone to walk back into a tent, and . . .

I want my, I want my, I want my IEDs . . . ” and we all cheered again.

“We’re all clear,” the LT said. “Someone bagged the bad guys.”

One of the things I appreciated was that he never called them “Hajjis.” I have Muslim friends and try not to toss generic epithets around. RIF—Rabid Islamic Fu . . . Fundamentalist—is fine. It’s a little more specific.

The compound lights came back up, casting a glow into the bunker. I stretched and waited. There were at least three people between me and outside, and I was in no hurry. Once people were out of the way, I rose carefully, watching my head on the roof, since I had left my Kevlar and body armor in the tent. Unless I had to work under fire it could stay there, too.

Paul was waiting outside.

“You want to check the Alphas and I’ll check Bravo?” he suggested, referring to two blocks of tents. Those were the electrician’s job, but we’d help out anyway, and the four Mechanical guys might need help swapping out some ECUs. Something was probably broken. If not from this, from “normal wear and tear” which happened every few hours. Fucking Arabia. I hated it.

“Sure, let me drop this crap off,” I said, holding up my now sandy towel and kit.

“Alright.” Paul nodded and headed toward Bravo section. He had a multimeter and a screwdriver with him, all he needed. He was a nerdy little guy, and should have been at least an E6 instead of an E5. He was a wizard with equipment, always calm and collected. I loved arguing my science versus his Creationism. I didn’t have to agree with someone to think of them as a friend.

I banged my feet off on the pallet in our vestibule, not that it would get rid of sand, but it might at least slow it down. I reached through my poncho/privacy screen/light curtain and tossed my stuff on my cot and the towel on the floor. There should be a couple of Motoralas around here somewhere. Yup, there was one left of four, in a charger at the front. I grabbed it, turned the knob until it beeped, and went back out, slinging my carbine and carrying another high-lumen flashlight. Those things got ubiquitous in a hurry.

The guitarist wasn’t singing, but he was playing something long and galloping, a rock/blues solo that just went on and on. I wanted to hear it up close, but duty first.

Across the way, I wove my way down over the tangle of cables and commo wire, slipping in the sand, listening for problems with the ECUs—buzzing contactors, compressors rattling, flapping V-belts, anything and everything that might, would go wrong. I looked for impacts that would have blown cables or connectors, or frag that might have sliced them, or blasts that could have tumbled stuff over or otherwise damaged it. Nothing. As usual, the insurgents made up for their lack of competence with their lack of courage, had fired a few badly aimed shots and split.

The guitarist was in Charlie or Delta section. I could hear him.

The check done, I reported that fact.

“Scorpion, this is Scorpion Three.”

“Go ahead, Scorpion Three.”

“Alpha Section, operational and secure.”

“Roger that.”

We don’t bother with overs, outs, paraphrases or all that stuff we’re supposed to. Brief is good.

That done, I was damned well going to catch the show. I followed the sound toward Charlie section of the tents.

I found people gathered around Charlie Four and Five, and on the other side at Eight and Nine. So the back of one of these four tents of twelve in Charlie section was where the show was.

I couldn’t tell which tent he was in. A couple of people tried to walk back, but the guy ropes and stakes were pretty tangled, and there was some stray wire. Anyway, what was the point? It sounded just great from out here.

The LT was here, and Paul, and others I knew from either our unit or Army troops we worked with regularly. The Big Dick wasn’t, of course. He was likely at the Plant on his knees reading AFI 36 and praying for guidance.

I saw one kid take a step toward C5, figuring to go inside.

“Don’t,” the LT said with a headshake.

He was right. No one else had taken a step and didn’t want to, because if we went in that tent and interrupted him, he might stop playing. It was just too unique, too good and too much of a relief for anyone to want it to stop.

The kid stepped back.

The guy could play. Jazz mixed with blues and he just went on and on, silky and then snappy on the strings, playing his own fills and rhythm. It’s one thing on stage or in the studio with racks of gear and a mixing board, but he had a guitar and an amp.

The notes faded out as he dialed the volume down, and we all strained to hear it as long as possible. The dull roar of generators, ECUs and the remaining ringing from mortars meant we probably missed quite a bit. Still, it was what we had.

Then a strummed chord brought it all back to life with one of the greatest songs of all time.

You get all sweaty in the dark,

there’s a sandstorm in the park, but meantime

South of the Tigris you stop and you hold everything.”

I’ve tried playing Sultans of Swing. It really takes two guitars and a bass to get that groove. It can be done on one guitar, if the guitarist is just amazingly good.

This guy was that good and then some.

He played this syncopated, peppy rhythm, with this odd bluesy, jazzy, Arabian melody. It fit the mood, the environment and the time, and I knew I’d never hear anything like it, ever again. Not that I’d come back to Iraq even for a performance like this, of course . . . though I just might.

We just stood there and soaked it up, rapt or smiling, amazed or just oblivious.

. . . Way on down south.

Way on down south, Baghdad town . . .

No one moved, no one twitched. The oven-dry heat covered us, and my feet sweated from the still sun-hot sand, but I was not going to move. He sang and played and it was wistful and rich and American, even though Knopfler’s Scottish. This version, though, was pure American spirit.

Goodnight, now it’s time to go home.

Let me make it fast with one more thing.

I am the Sultan . . .

I am the Sultan of swing.

I had no doubt he was.

He tapped and pulled that outro solo, and I wanted him to go on for hours, days, forever, but he faded out.

We stood there, feeling the reluctantly waning heat, holding our breath and waiting. Then we heard the thump as he shut the amp off, and there was a collective sigh, followed by a smatter of applause.

Some wandered off at once. I stuck around. I can’t say why I didn’t run into the tent right then and talk to him personally, except that it seemed rude. I also hoped he might play something else. I had five-hundred or so songs on my iPod, but it wasn’t the same.

I gave up after five minutes, though a few troops stuck around longer. But heck, it had been great, he was done and I had to get some sleep. To that end, the music had helped. The RIFs had thrown rockets at us, and we’d thrown back a defiant blast of blues and rock guitar, with the percussion played on a fifty caliber machine gun. It was our score, our win, and I don’t think anyone doubted we were and would be the victors. Sometimes you get points just for sheer balls, and this had been exactly that. I was relaxed, unwound from the incoming fire and went to sleep warm and smiling.

We never did figure out who he was. There were a dozen decent guitarists on site, and several of them had axes and amps, but no one admitted it, and none of them sounded like him. I’ll never know who this guy was, and we never met, but despite that, for a half hour we shared something wonderful in a remote COB in a desolate wasteland in Iraq, and he’s my friend.

I’ll raise a beer to him when I get back stateside.

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