Monday, August 31, 2009

I finally made to my hometown after driving across the state and back. I grew up in a tiny south Texas town with the population of about 1200, dogs included. I enjoyed growing up in a small town, always saw the same faces and did’t have worry about a single thing. The biggest worry on a kid’s mind was getting up for school the next morning.

We would play baseball out in the yard or basketball in the driveway all summer long with all the neighborhood kids. Most of the time we would roll the basketball goal out to the edge of the street and play in the street. We would even go swimming in the river that runs thru town without even letting our parents know what we were up too. Our parents didn’t care, they didn’t have too; it is what you do in a small town. The speed limit was unofficially 10mph everywhere you went.

Growing up out there afforded me some of the experiences that would make overprotective parents lock their kids in the attic. At 15 I was learning how to use a blow torch, welder and I performed my first motor swap. I even learned how to drive when I was 12 on all the farms around town. One of my summer jobs was driving a tandem axle dump truck for the county road department and I did not even have a license yet.

I love the memories I have of this place and every time I go back I wish it would magically transform itself to those days again. The days when my buddies and I were all driving our first cars, drinking our first beers and finally realizing that the opposite sex did not have cooties.

I was back for one last visit before my government sponsored vacation, making my rounds and visiting what was left of my friends and family. In the last five years or so there has been a mass exodus, most of my childhood friends have left town in search of work, hence the road trip.

I left my buddy's ranch this morning and drove to town to visit with the few remaining characters of my childhood. After visiting a hand full of people who had more than their fair share in contributing to those childhood experiences, I finally made it over to my dad’s house. The door was unlocked so I let myself in, the dogs did not even lift their heads from their mid morning nap. I walked through the house and I found Dad passed out and smelling of alcohol. I never expect to see my dad sober. His alcoholism was the fuel that fanned the flame that destroyed my parents marriage. He’s been in rehab, in and out of the hospital and can never hold down and steady job. He is everything I do not want to be. Nevertheless, he is my dad and I at least want to see him before I get to go build sandcastles in the middle east.

I was a somewhat ticked off, it was a fucking Thursday morning and he had known for a over a week that I was going to be in town for the next few days. I woke him from his beer induced coma and instructed him to get out of bed, clean himself up and told him that I would be back later. I walked away without even shaking the man’s hand, in a small town that is about 20 years behind the rest of the world, that’s enough to get you killed.

After half an hour of cruising around town to cool my temper I headed back over to my dad’s place and noticed my uncle’s truck missing out of the driveway. At first I thought my uncle had woken up from his slumber to go grab a bite to eat. He works the night shift at the local cotton gin so he has an excuse to sleep all day. After walking through the house, I realized my dad had taken the truck without even asking.

After ten minutes or so my dad drives up with two 24oz beers and one of his buddy’s sitting next to him. He walks over to a picnic table in the backyard and pops one open.

“How’ve you been Son?”

I turned to his friend and asked, “What are you doing hanging out with this guy?” I was disgusted that my dad had not even showered and was still wearing the same clothes I found him passed out in. At this point all he cared about was his next buzz.

I ignored my dad and asked his buddy a few question’s about how his brother was doing. His brother is in a medical unit that will be going overseas with our brigade. This little town is sending three sons to war. There have been at least other three guys that I know of serve in the current wars, but never three during the same deployment.

My dad then asks me if I could give his buddy a ride home and was wondering if I could drop him off at his drinking buddy's house for a lunchtime bar-b-que.

“Will you drop me off at Jimenez’s, their gonna BBQ," he asked while swallowing what was left of his first beer.

I know he noticed the I wanna rip your fucking head off and shit down your neck look on my face and he added, “I’ll stay if you want to visit.”

I did not even try to care, ten minutes of seeing him was enough to make me contemplate violence. Here I am getting ready to embark on a journey that will test the most intricate variables of the human person and all he gave a shit about was his mid-day BBQ and beer.

I reluctantly told them to get in my truck and I drove the quarter mile to his buddies house and dropped him off. I continued to the location of the BBQ and as my dad was getting out of the truck I told him I was not coming to town anymore and that I was staying out at my buddy’s ranch. I told him if he wanted to see me he could drive out there to see me.

I know he does not get it and it, is everything. He had a brother fight in Vietnam while he was just a snot nosed little kid. If anyone would know about having a family member go to war it would be him. I remember how much more of a father he was before the alcoholism. Now he has regressed to the mindset of a high school dropout looking for the next party.

After dropping him off I headed over to the local gas station to pick up a few items and headed out to the ranch. Now lets fast forward to later that night. I was out at the ranch playing my guitar when my cell phone rang, it was a local number so I figured it was a buddy calling from a number I did not have stored in my phone. On the other end of the line I hear a garbled mess of words coming from the mouth of someone so drunk that I thought it was one of my buddies fucking with me.

“Hello, who is this,” I asked.
“It’s your dad, I wanna come out and see you.” He was so drunk he had to repeat the line twice so I could understand what he was saying. I could smell the alcohol over the phone.

Now I was about to blow a gasket. He was piss drunk, probably had not showered since I saw him that morning and now he wanted to drive the ten miles to the ranch house.
I lied. I had too. If he showed is face at that moment I would have smash my acoustic guitar over the godforsaken pile of shit he calls his head.

“You’re drunk and how are you going to get out here,” my dad does not even own a vehicle. “Besides I am getting ready for bed, I have shit I gotta do in the morning.”

He tried saying a few other things but I was having such a hard time understanding him. I cut him off and hung up.

Over the course of the weekend I had forgotten about him. I was having too much fun hanging out with my friends out at the ranch that the last thing on my mind was seeing him again. Monday morning came around and I figured I'd give it one last chance before I left town. I at least wanted to stop by and see my uncle when he got off work.

Same story, different chapter. He was passed out, woke up, drank and beer he had in the fridge and then immediately began hunting for loose change to go buy a second round. Pathetic.

I gave him a ride that day because I at least wanted to rip into his ass about sobering up but, when he jumped into the truck I was so furious I could not think of what to say. I do not want my last memories of my dad to be that of a pathetic, lonely man with a thirst for alcohol so great that it had become on obsession. I would compare it to Smeagol's lust for his precious ring and how it ultimately killed him.

I could care less about what he does with what's left of his life but it is hard to imagine that a grown man would not even care to clean him self up to say goodbye to his son. I know he doesn't understand the severity of the situation. Somewhere in his mind he thinks I will return from the middle east and I will drive over to his house because he is the first person I want to see. Honestly, I do not know if I'll ever see him again; his health is so bad I doubt he will live past my deployment. His next beer could be his last. I know it, he doesn't, at least I am ready for it.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

So, I've been traveling around the great state of Texas with my cousins, Slim and Woody, visiting friends and family before I have to report for military duty.This feels like the point of no return. After this trip is said and done there is no turning back. Well, it's not like turning back was ever an option, but you get the point. Every nuance, every detail, every motion, every sentence seems to have a deeper significance considering the fact that the next time I visit these places I will have been around the world and back.

I have had difficulty keeping my head in the right place the last few days. My phone has been ringing itself to death and the volume of texts messages would challenge the inbox of the best drug dealer in town. Everyone and their dog wants to know how I feel about mobilization and I keep giving them the same scripted answer.

"I am as ready as I can be," what a cliche; I can hear the Army recruiting theme song playing in my head when I say that. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind talking about it but sometimes I feel like I am in an open ended interview with Barbara Walters. I wouldn't even wish that upon my worst enemy.

We went to a minor league baseball game yesterday and something happened that made me realize that my head has been in the right place all along.

My brother, two cousins and I were standing in line buying beer and food. I realized I couldn't juggle a beer, nachos, a chicken sandwich, a bottle of Gatorade and napkins. Without hesitation, I proceeded to stuff my cargo short hip pockets with the Gatorade, napkins, and the pre wrapped chicken sandwich. These items joined the chewing tobacco and cell phone that had been there all along.

When we got back to our seat my bother turns to me and asks, "Where the Chicken sandwich?"

"In my pocket." everyone in the immediate vicinity started laughing. At first I was a little confused. Is it not normal to stuff things in your cargo pocket? Something that I thought was absolutely normal was somewhat alien to the people around me. My brother made a comment that he would have never thought to stuff the items into his cargo pocket. He's never had to carry all the gear that a soldier carries either.

Our military uniforms have an infinite amount of pockets. Every now and then I find a pocket that I never knew existed. It is normal to have every pocket stuffed with gear, food, hand sanitizer, weather proof note pads, and other nick knacks.

That instinctive action, regardless of how trivial is was, helped me gathered my thoughts as I reflected on the reaction of the crowd around me. Their reaction made me realize that they had never served in the military. The countless questions were coming from people merely curious as to what was going through my head as I prepare for war. They were not trying to be insensitive to my situation but they couldn't resist the human tendency to be curious either. I can understand that they are curious.

As I drank my Shiner Bock and watched the ball game I decided my head was always in the right place, but I had allowed Barbara to ask one too many questions. I was trying to disconnect from the world to avoid the endless questions and comments and somewhere in the process the struggle became one of the inner person. It's hard enough questioning oneself and struggling with your own personal demons but imagine the pressure when questions have you surrounded and their weapons are on full auto.

Mom made us breakfast this morning and I was the first of the hungover guys out of bed. I decided I wanted first dibs on the meal so I let the locust sleep before waking them to descend upon the breakfast table. After half an hour or so she had homemade tortillas, chorizo and egg, potatoes, bacon, biscuits, the works, all ready for the onslaught that was about to ensue.

After the meal I noticed a cake sitting on the counter, I figured it was for the BBQ later in the day. I walk over to it and what was written on it made my gut twist. I know my mom means well but holy rusted fucking metal batman. Across the American flag icing was HAPPY BIRTHDAY (MY NAME)! My birthday is three fucking months away.

I think I need to set up a therapy session with Dr. Phil. I know I will not be around this year for all the holidays but celebrating my birthday three months early upset me. No, that's an understatement, I wanted to crush the cake on sight. I dealt with it in my usual manner by cracking a joke about keeping my drunk cousin away from it before he ate it all and I walked away.

When I said this feels like the point of no return I meant it. I know my mom had nothing but good intentions with the gesture but she should have asked me first. Seeing that cake made me feel like I had terminal cancer or some incurable disease that will cut this trip around the sun a few months short.

I do not plan on dying in a foreign country. I plan on coming home and living a long healthy life. Seeing that cake made me think my family is prepared for the worst. It doesn't work that way; I don't work that way. I don't think they get it. Just when I thought I had my head in the right place I have to go chase down another demon.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I called my cousin yesterday. I wanted to give him a heads up about my trip back home to visit before we report for the mobilization. I occurred to me that every single time I have spoken to him in the last ten months or so, it has been because we are trying to dispel some of the rumors we have heard regarding the deployment or we are both in uniform.

The last phone conversation we had, we joked about being old men and talking about our war experience the way Vietnam vets do. Just a coupe of old men still reliving our days in the sandbox, talking about the things we did and reminiscing about the friends that were there with us. I could vividly picture us both old, gray, grumpy, with beer bellies and grand kids crying in the background. We are sitting on a porch somewhere, wearing our faded Iraq war era army jackets with a cold beer in our hands, laughing at the humor only he and I would understand and reflecting about the things we have seen. The thought of both of us hanging out forty years from now made me smile.

We even joked about shooting each other in the foot after a shitload of beer and a few cigars just to avoid going.

"Dude, we are going to get drunk and start crying and shit. We are going to end up shooting each other in the foot."

I was laughing so hard I could not get a word out. Leave it to my cousin and his hilarious sound effects, "Paaaa," simulating gunfire, "now shoot me"!

We were both laughing so hard I was fighting back tears. The truth behind it all is that we are both glad that the day is soon approaching. We both just want to go overseas and do our thing. It has been tough putting our lives on pause for our duty and as much as it sounds like a cliche it truly is the price we pay to play the game. We both feel the same way, we are glad our turn has come but we know the difficulties that lie ahead are unprecedented in our young naive lives. We both look forward to the day we can come back and hit play on the remote control.

He never lets me forget the first conversation we had after I got back from my Basic and Advanced Individual training almost three years ago. It was more like a few words than a conversation and he remembers it better than I do. The first things out of his mouth when I saw him were, "I heard our window for deployment is sometime in the next few years."

According to him my cold and unscripted response was, "I don't give a shit, I want to earn my strips."

Conversation over. He says it made him feel like a shit bag when I said that. He had been a Joe long enough to let the reality of an upcoming deployment set it, even if it was a few years away. I, on the other hand, had not even given it a second thought. He must bring up that verbal exchange every other time we visit and we both laugh every single time. I am sure we will do the same when we are drinking that cold beer sometime in the future.

I can only imagine what is going through his head. His baby will be four months old when we leave for MOB platform. If life was tough before, it just became exponentially more difficult to the n-th degree. He casually mentioned how he was going to miss the baby's first birthday and how he feared the baby would not know him when he returned. I could not offer any consolation; I could only sense what was going through the walnut in between his ginormous ears.

Those ears, we would kid and joke about those ears all the time when we were younger. The size of his ears were only dwarfed by the size of the umbrellas my brother called ears. At least my cousin grew into them and they are in no danger of getting shot off.

The last time I saw him we were both on a night qualification firing range and we had finagled our way into being each others safety during the qualification. Just to put things in perspective for you it was the night after I met the NCO that gave me all the advice about packing my gear. I don't remember how well I did but on the qualification range but the conversation was classic. During all the downtime we talked about things that would make a Somali pirate blush, maybe I'll tell you about it someday, but for now I'll save it for that day forty years from now.

Our phone conversation this time around was a little more business and little less bullshit. He was en route to his family readiness event with his unit and I was getting ready to go out with a couple of friends. Our conversation kept getting interrupted by what I assumed were calls on the other line. He told me how the sheriff's department he worked for was planning an "Off to War" party that same weekend I would be in town and that we would get together at some point. At least we will get to hang out outside a military environment one last time.

The sheer reality of it all is this; we are both about to make enough memories to last ten lifetimes. Some good, some bad, most of them somewhere in between but we both just want to sit on that porch forty years from now and watch the grass grow.

It's go time.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

I have had a few friends ask me about the amount comedy, cursing and sarcasm that one is exposed to after they had read one of my previous blog post. I think they just wanted to hear a few stories about some of the crazy shit that is said and done. Telling a good story might get a laugh or two but that is not my intention with this blog.

Storytelling might give people a peak at the characters that are willing to defend their country but a story has the potential to be skin deep. However, it also has the capability of introducing us to an entirely different understanding of the human condition if told in the right pretext. Some stories only tell us of the day to day actions of a person. What is usually left to the imagination are the most important details. I want people to understand who we are and why we do what we do. The world needs to know that we struggle with what we do. We never pray for war but if we do not serve, who will?

As I share our story with you, I hope that you will begin to understand not just who we are but that we are no different than you. We just chose to stand between you and the things that go bump in the night. I only wish that I am capable of conveying that image to you in my writing. You will begin to see what it is like to be in an INFANTRY battalion.

Infantry, let's think about that word for a minute. The word infantry is a license to say and do some of the most insulting, politically incorrect things when around other grunts and know that everyone is going to laugh. Nothing is off limits: sex, gender, race, religion or anything in between. Imagine placing Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Colbert, Conan O'Brien, Larry the Cable Guy, Kat Williams, Jack Black, Jim Carry, and Steve Carell in a room with an infinite amount of alcohol, a get out of jail card, a handful of strippers, a few guns, a couple hundred thousand dollars, a gay guy, a goat, and three midgets. Just sit back an watch what happens. These are the things that bring us together as brothers. This level of camaraderie can never be experienced by those who have never donned the uniform.

It also means that we have families that we leave behind when we are called to duty. People outside the military bubble do not understand that when we deploy so do our friends and family. They never step foot into a combat zone but they are right there with us every step of they way. They worry about what might happen on the next patrol just as much as we do.

Infantry also means that there are moral and ethical dilemmas that are fought as we walk the battlefields of our mind. We question every mistake and ask ourselves were we erred. Mistakes in our business are not measured in dollars.

Comedy is not the only possible signature of the personality. Stress, anger, frustration, loyalty, duty, honor, respect, and motivation are a few of the factors that play keys roles in how each and everyone of us is defined as a person. Comedy just happens to be the tool of choice to fend off stress and fatigue. The fact of the matter is that a person could not do what we do without having a sense of humor. It nullifies all the bullshit we put ourselves through.

As the soldiers of or battalion embark on this journey, I only wish to show you all the emotions, sweat, anger, pain, tears, joy, sadness, loneliness, frustration, compassion, and all the moments that make us human.