by Andrew MacQuarrie
“Keep your cool,” Chief is telling them. “I know ya’ll wanna be out of here. I know ya’ll are just as tired of this place as I am. Just keep your cool and we’ll be home before you know it.”
Keep your cool.
A bold thing for Chief to say to 350 roasting airmen packed like sweat-soaked sardines in a little patch of shade outside the passenger terminal. It’s 125o. But at least it’s a dry heat. That’s what they’d all said when Grisham got his orders to Kuwait.
At least it’s a dry heat.
Most seemed sincere, though there were a few crusty old NCOs who smirked when they said it. They were the ones who’d given as many years to the desert as they had to their own kids, who’d been here back when the war was kicking off and the base wasn’t much more than tents and stacked Hesco baskets. They were the ones who knew better. Grisham thought about those old NCOs as he rolled his neck and pulled his hat over his eyes.
It wasn’t a dry heat. Not even a bit. The air was just as saturated as Grisham’s sweat-drenched uniform. 45% humidity. That’s what his phone said. He’d checked it back at the MWR before loading up on the bus for what was slotted to be a 0800 flight back home to Texas via Germany then Baltimore then Denver. 45% wasn’t even the worst he’d seen during the six-and-a-half months he’d sacrificed to Kuwait. But most days he wasn’t stuck outside for hours on end waiting for a subcontracted 737 to take off either. And now Chief is telling them that their 0800 departure—which had already slipped to a 0900 departure, then 1000, then 1030, then 1230, then 1400—is now a 1530 departure. “Keep your cool,” he says. “It’s all part of the game.”
Sitting there, holding his hands behind his neck, his “cool” long since vaporized under the remorseless desert sun, Grisham makes up his mind that this isn’t a game he wants to play anymore.
Grisham started telling everyone he was going to join the Army the summer that his dad died, just three days after getting cut from the football team and two weeks before his girlfriend dumped him for Lenny Stevens from the class of ’04. His dad was Army. 82nd Airborne, “All-American.”. He’d worn that badge proudly to the end of his days. And even though it’d been years since the old man had jumped out of a plane by the time his son was born, Grisham found his own nugatory sense of pride in the rack of dusty old medals on the family mantel. He shamelessly recycled and often inflated the few war stories his father had bothered to share with him. He imagined his own dad’s pockmarked face with the busted capillaries and sunken eyes in place of all the Hollywood soldiers and pixelated heroes he commanded on his Xbox. He dreamed of one day wearing cammies, of leaving home under a ruck and humping across the desert for months on end then coming back to a throng of swooning admirers. Joining the Army seemed like the obvious choice: To honor his father. To see his own uniformed headshot hanging on the high school wall of fame. To make Sandy, that bitch, regret the day she left him and Lenny Stevens, who worked at Autozone and didn’t have the balls to enlist, realize that he wasn’t half the man that Grisham was.
But enlisting meant running, and Grisham hated running. It was a big part of why he’d been cut from the football team. Running for the Army was different, though. It actually meant something, something a million times more than football. So he ran. He loaded up a backpack full of soup cans and pulled on his dad’s old physical training uniform and started putting in laps around the neighbourood. In the middle of summer. In Arizona. Most days it hit 110o before 10 AM. The heat was blistering. Grisham could feel his skin melting beneath the smothering sweatshirt, his head growing lighter by the minute, his eyes burning as the sweat poured over his face. But it was a dry heat. That’s what Grisham told himself. He could handle dry heat. Soon enough he’d be marching in it in full body armor, hunting terrorists and fighting for freedom and bringing home his own medals to rack on the mantel next to his dad’s.
He didn’t remember passing out. He didn’t remember the neighbour’s dog licking the dried sweat off his face or Mrs. Patterson shouting for help or the EMTs loading him into the back of the ambulance. The first thing Grisham remembered from that day was the ER nurse cutting away his dad’s PT sweats and telling him to stick to his GI Joes next time he wanted to play Army.
He was discharged on the fourth day. His mom wheeled him out of the hospital after the doctor lectured them both about keeping out of the sun and staying hydrated.
Could have died.
Have to be more careful.
Grisham collapsed onto the couch as soon as they got home. Just the thought of trying to run again made him dizzy, and when he looked up at that rack of medals on the mantel and remembered the email from the Army recruiter he still hadn’t responded to, he started doubt. Then when the surge kicked off and all the numbers and footage and bodies started pouring back into the States, Grisham finally accepted what he’d known deep down all along—he wasn’t a soldier.
Chief is talking on the phone to someone. His face is flat, the same grizzly emotionless brick it’s been for the last six-and-a-half months. Still, Grisham figures it must be bad news. The plane is broken. The pilot is sick. Someone forgot to sign some carbon copy of some outdated form and now they’re never gonna get off the ground. Either way it’s bad. Either way Grisham is stuck here in this smoldering hell with half an MRE in his stomach and the worst caffeine-nicotine-dehydration headache of his life.
“Grand Forks.” The slap on Grisham’s back stings like acid. It’s Kruis, the walking migraine from medical who spent two years in North Dakota earlier in his career. Grisham went in to medical the first week of deployment to get some Nicoderm patches and mentioned in passing that he’d gotten orders to Grand Forks. Kruis hasn’t shut up about it since. “Won’t have to deal with this kind of weather up there, huh?” Kruis laughs that coffin-nail laugh and slaps him on the back again. That much is true, though. That much Grisham has been thinking about. Thirty years old, twelve years in the Air Force, and when he gets back home and moves his family up to North Dakota, for the first time in his life he won’t have to think about the heat.
Grisham opens his mouth to say something dismissive to Kruis, but then he sees her. She’s talking to Chief who’s just hung up his phone and very nearly smiles as she approaches him. But of course it’s not her. Can’t be her. She’s got the same shape, though. The same rank. The same loose sandy-blonde bun hanging out the back of her cover. She even crosses her legs and tilts her head and irreverently smacks her gum as she addresses higher rank the same way. All of a sudden the air seems heavier. The thermometer hasn’t budged, but it doesn’t feel as hot. A shiver runs up Grisham’s spine. It’s impossible to say for sure, but he figures if he had any fluids left in his body his eyes would be watering.
Army was out of the picture, but the Air Force supposedly had decent mortality rates and a pretty good quality of life. Grisham wasn’t the college type and there weren’t exactly jobs growing on trees back then, so he signed up. He barely squeaked through MEPS, conveniently forgetting to mention that whole heat stroke thing, then soon regretted it during his first week of Basic running remedial PT in the dry 105o San Antonio heat. Despite logging the slowest run-time in his flight and finding himself on the receiving end of a pugil stick beating so severe it nearly landed him in Medical Hold, though, Grisham eventually learned to carry himself with a hollow bravado and graduated with his first three medals pinned proudly to his chest. He hoped and prayed for a first assignment somewhere exciting—DC or Hawaii or Japan—but finished tech school and headed off to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. Three hours from where he grew up. Average summer high 100o, dry.
It didn’t take long for Grisham to make up his mind that he hated Arizona, hated working outside all day keeping runways clean and clear of hazards, serving at the beck and call of hotshot pilots who didn’t even know his name. He swore to Christ he was going to get out as soon as his enlistment was up. Then he met a girl—a local girl who swore she’d never fall for an Air Force guy, but fell for him. Soon enough she was pregnant. Soon enough he was re-enlisting. Soon enough they were off to Laughlin Air Force Base—average summer high 97o, dry—where they had their next two kids and bought their first home and started to fight like it was the reason they were born. Bellies got softer, tempers shorter. One beer per night became two, then three, then whatever he felt like, and soon Grisham failed his first PT test and missed out on promotion for the third time, and the word “divorce” was mentioned for the first time, and somewhere around then he started to give up on everything.
It was Grisham’s supervisor who suggested he volunteer for a deployment. It would be good for his performance report, he said. Maybe get him out of the rut he was in. Besides, there weren’t nearly as many deployments out there as there used to be. The war was winding down. Chances were he wouldn’t go, and even if he did it’d be somewhere safe. No one died on deployment anymore. Not in the Air Force. Not in 2018. But then the orders dropped and Grisham nearly threw up, his head spinning the same way it had that day he’d almost died in his dad’s sweats back in Arizona.
Kuwait. A cake deployment, they said. As cake a deployment as they come. Grisham had to look it up, had to have his supervisor show him Kuwait on a map. Even on the map it looked hot, a little burnt-sand knight-helmet of a country just a couple lines away from the equator. “But it’s a dry heat.” That’s what they said.
He told his wife that night. Kuwait. Six months. Leaving in six weeks. She didn’t know anything about Kuwait either, thought it was spelled with a Q, didn’t even bother to look it up.
Grisham’s first month in country he never went anywhere without his flak. Never made eye contact with anyone who wasn’t American. Never left base to check out the city even though they were allowed. It wasn’t the jabs, the constant chiding and mocking from his troops that convinced him to finally let down his guard. It was the boredom. The monotony. The realization that each day was no different than the one before or the 150 still to come. The resignation that this was as exciting as his life was ever going to get. And maybe, at least in part, it had something to do with her.
She was young, one of several A1Cs fresh out of tech school under his supervision. But she was older than the others. Airfield Management was a second career for her. It was a new beginning—something that left Grisham both envious and intrigued. And she was cute. Beautiful, really. She was out of his league, would have been even when he was young and hopeful and not so breathless half the time. But she looked up to him. She saw something in him that wasn’t actually there. At some point near the three-month mark in their deployment, Grisham started to see it too.
His calls back home to Texas became fewer and shorter and less focused. It was the wifi signal, he told his wife, the mother of his three sons, even though the whole base had recently gone fiber optic. It was the work tempo, he said, even though he spent the majority of his time at the office watching movies and waiting for calls from those hotshot pilots. What he didn’t say was that there was a pretty girl from Queens with a sleeve tattoo and a big laugh in his squadron, that they spent practically every moment on shift together lounging in the AC and listening to Crash Net, that he was starting to wonder if maybe there was more for him than the life he’d left behind back in Texas.
Grisham couldn’t sleep the night after it happened. The next several nights, really. For hours on end he’d lie in his bunk thinking about how she’d felt, how she’d smelled, what kind of man he now was. He went to medical and got some melatonin. When that didn’t work he went back and begged until they gave him Ambien. When that stopped working he started mixing the Ambien with double-doses of Benadryl. He started calling his wife more. He told her he loved her a dozen times a day. He signed up for Amazon Prime just to overnight her a twenty-pack of Toblerone and a Friends box set.
He never called it off. He just stopped talking to her. He avoided her at work, went to the gym at different times, started going off base so he wouldn’t bump into her in the chow hall. If she was hurt, she didn’t let on. Besides, three more months and they’d go their separate ways. Three more months and Grisham would never see her again.
It was a Saturday when it happened—the day before his anniversary, just over a month left in the deployment. There’d already been three In Flight Emergencies that day. All Navy, all low fuel, so really not much of an emergency, but anytime an IFE was called, Grisham’s team had to respond. So when Crash Net came alive for the fourth time that day, the entire office groaned. Then they heard it was medical and a depraved wave of relief washed over the room. Grisham, though, was dialled in. He didn’t breathe as the fire chief described the young girl in civilian clothes found down two miles out on the viper trail. The wavering in the chief’s voice told him it was real, the pit in Grisham’s chest told him it was worse than real.
He took the truck. He sped out to the viper trail, drove as fast as he could until he saw the emergency vehicles. He parked. He got out. He got as close as he could. There was a body on the stretcher. They were wheeling it back to the ambulance. They moved fast, like there was still a chance, but Grisham could see in their eyes that there wasn’t.
It was when they turned the stretcher to load it onto the ambulance that he saw her. Her eyes were closed. Her shirt was soaked. She looked as content as she had that night back at the office, but even from where he stood he could see there wasn’t any life left in her.
Chief is talking to that girl again. The girl who isn’t her. She’s getting worked up. She’s telling Chief she’s got to get home, that her cousin is sick—dying, it sounds like—that Chief needs to make sure this plane takes off so she can get home and see her cousin before it’s too late. Chief nods. He cares, but he doesn’t show it. He’s heard this story a hundred times and knows how it always ends. He’s telling her again to keep her cool.
The girl turns and retreats back to the rear of the pack where there’s a bit more shade and a lot less rank. Grisham locks eyes with her as she passes. Hers are blue, bloodshot, sunken. But they’re open and alive. Grisham nods, hopes she understands he would give her his seat on that plane if he could, if doing so would get her home any faster.
The untethered sun inches that much closer to the lifeless Kuwaiti horizon. It must be well past 1530—their most recent projected departure time—and it’s still just as hot as it was at 0900 as it will be at 2100.
He thinks about her eyes, the last time he saw them open. He can’t even remember what color they were.
No one dies on deployment anymore.
That’s what they’d said. Not in the Air Force. Not in 2018. The worst you have to worry about is the clap. Kuwaiti clap. What Grisham wouldn’t give for a burning case of Kuwaiti clap, if only that was the alternative.
A cold shiver runs through his tired body, his sweat-drenched uniform clinging to his heaving chest. He thinks about Texas. He thinks about the world he’s going back to. Fast food and football and driving his own damn car for a change, not to mention his first beer after six-and-a-half months of drinking only bottled water and instant coffee. He thinks about his home, already mostly packed. He thinks about his kids, now six-and-a-half months older since the last time he held them. He thinks about his wife, about all the things they’ll never say to one another.
He thinks about her again, lying there on that rickety stretcher, lifeless and empty. He wants to leave that image behind in Kuwait, a place he’ll never come back to. Ever. But that’s not a memory he can just drop. That one will follow him to Texas, to North Dakota, to wherever he goes from there.
It’ll be hot when he gets home. August in South Texas—not quite Kuwait hot, but not that far off. It’ll stay that way up until September when they move to North Dakota, where everything will be different. His soon-to-be supervisor at Grand Forks has already warned him there may very well be snow on the ground by the time they get there, that he better bring his shovel. Grisham has never shovelled snow in his life. He thinks about the winter, about the cold. He wonders if there’s such a thing as a dry cold, if that would be a good thing or a bad thing.
Ever since that summer in Arizona that put him in the hospital, Grisham has hated the heat. But heat is all he’s ever known. This will be the first time he’s ever experienced something else. He’s not even sure he owns a real winter jacket. The thought of such a big change makes him nervous, but there’s a part of him—a small part—that’s hopeful, that thinks maybe the cold will be good for him, that maybe it was the heat holding him back all along. Maybe as soon as he lives somewhere that’s not so suffocating he’ll finally be the person he’s always wanted to be.
Chief hangs up the phone. His face is even more stern as he turns to address his troops. “Alright, everyone. Listen up. Remind me again: what’s the key to Air Power?”
The groans and curses are immediate. Flexibility. Punctuality. Resiliency. Choose your canned response. Chief offers none of them. Instead, he just says it: The flight is cancelled. Not leaving until tomorrow. They’re stuck in Kuwait at least one more day.
There’s more cursing. A couple of the airmen near Grisham swear that this is their last deployment, that they’re getting out as soon as they get home. Somewhere behind him the girl is crying. Her friends are trying to console her. The sun, somehow, feels even hotter as it threatens to disappear. Grisham’s head pounds. His veins are collapsed. His neck is burnt.
A cold North Dakota breeze would feel nice right about now. But that’s a whole world away from here.