I looked over at Handan seated next to me. Her flak jacket seemed to swallow her small frame, and the helmet she wore sat askew on her head. She smiled, her face pale and waxen in the green light. I took her hand in mine and looked around. Over there, a soldier in the Afghan National Army checked his strap and adjusted his helmet. There, a member of the Royal Air Force looked around, lips pressed and eyes cold. To my left, a U.S. Marine sat with an M16 rifle between his legs. I felt the weight of my helmet pressing down on my neck. Dull pain spread from an old high school football injury. I shifted the helmet, searching for comfort. A bead of sweat rolled past my temple. The lights cut out, and I squeezed Handan’s hand as darkness closed in.
The morning of our move was sunny and crisp. The day would warm quickly, as March ushered us from the raw and rainy winter towards the searing heat of summer. It was Friday, March 11, and Handan and I stood outside of our empty living container and watched as our belongings were loaded onto a flatbed truck.
Everything we owned now fit into one wooden crate and two plastic Gorilla boxes – a big increase from the two duffel bags we arrived with. In the past six months, we had bought a lot of stuff through Amazon after I discovered that shipping to a U.S. military base (even one as remote as Camp Leatherneck) was no different than shipping to a U.S. address. We bought pillows, blankets, a Sony PS3 video game system, a small fountain and waterfall (which I fried in about 11 seconds after plugging it into 220 volt power without a converter), a rock tumbler/polisher (lots of cool stones on the ground in Afghanistan), clothing, boots, hats and gloves.
Oh! I almost forgot…and a Flamenco guitar.
We had two more items to square away before we were fully packed and ready to go: Jerkfish and Lola.
We had inherited these two goldfish from my former boss, the South African. He had been called back home unexpectedly which had resulted in me being promoted to manager of the Health & Safety Department. It also resulted in Handan and me becoming the caretakers of his two fish. I can’t remember what he called them, if anything, but Handan and I wanted them to have proper names. She named one, and I named the other. Can you guess which one of us gave the name, “Lola,” and which gave the name, “Jerkfish?”
We wouldn’t be able to travel with Jerkfish and Lola, so we made arrangements to have them travel in the truck with the Afghan driver who would be delivering our belongings. The trip would take about five days, so we taped their bottle of food to the jar and gave instructions for their care. These instructions were relayed to the driver through an interpreter, as the driver spoke only Dari (one of the many Afghan languages) and a little Turkish. Much jabbering in Dari ensued as the driver attempted to understand his new duties. Though this man had driven his truck through countless miles of barren and dangerous desert in a country ravaged by decades of war and had doubtless seen violence and suffering greater than we can image, these two small orange fish in a jar had him utterly flummoxed. I gave them a 50/50 chance of surviving the journey to our new base.
With Jerkfish and Lola in capable hands (I hoped), Handan and I returned to our offices to await our own departure. We would be flying MilAir to Kabul that night in a C-130 Hercules turboprop loaded with troops.
Here’s a shot I took one evening at sunset of a C-130 getting ready for takeoff.
After a day spent saying goodbye to Turkish, Afghan, Filipino and American friends, Handan and I were driven from our camp to the MilAir waiting room near the airfield. We were each given flak jackets and helmets. This was going to be a military flight in an active combat zone. It was early evening. The sky was still light, though it would be full dark when we flew. We got out of the car and walked to the large green tent that served as departure lounge for MilAir flights. There was a large flat-screen television in the waiting room. CNN was playing, and all eyes were on the screen. It was Friday, March 11, 2011. Japan had just suffered the fourth most powerful earthquake ever recorded, followed by catastrophic tsunamis and an unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant that would eventually surpass Chernobyl as the world’s worst. Scenes of destruction and suffering played on an endless loop, interrupted at regular intervals by well-coiffed news anchors gabbling about how sad it all was. We sat there for hours, waiting and watching.
It was a relief when we were told it was time for us to board the flight. We walked out of the waiting lounge tent and onto the airfield’s apron. We donned our flak jackets and helmets and walked towards the open rear hatch of the C-130.
The seats were arranged in four rows that ran the length of the cargo hold. Two inward-facing rows ran along the inner wall of the fuselage, and two outward-facing rows ran along the center line of the cargo hold. We found seats on the left side along the inner wall of the fuselage. We knocked knees with those sitting across from us. Obviously I didn’t have my camera out, snapping pictures like Joe Tourist at the amusement park, but here is a photo I found online to show you exactly how it looked and felt.
A mighty roar filled our ears, and I was pushed into Handan as the Marine pressed into me. Seconds later, an impossibly short time, everything tilted as we lifted into a steep ascent. The engines screamed in their effort to push us through the danger zone as quickly as possible. Minutes later, the C-130 leveled and the lights came on. The soldiers around us doffed their helmets, so we did the same. Relief washed over me, as my neck pain subsided. We had one hour before descent. One hour in the light. One hour to look around and to think. Cold seeped through the fuselage. We wore only shirt sleeves, and the chill worked into us, reaching for our bones. We sat, and we waited.
The lights dimmed and changed to a faint green glow. We put our helmets back on. The green light switched off, and we were again thrust into darkness. The plane pitched forward at an obscene angle, propellers whining in protest. We banked left, then right, vicious twists in a terrifying descent meant to make the plane harder for enemies to track and fire upon. The only indication that this tortured fall towards Earth was intentional was the cool demeanor of our fellow flyers. My knuckles glowed white as I squeezed Handan’s hand. How long had we been falling? There were no windows, so I spent every moment convinced it would be my last. The engines howled their indignation as we flopped around the sky. Just then, right after one of the plane’s maniacal gyrations, we steadied and were thrust forward, Handan into me, and I into the marine on my left. We had landed in Kabul.
We deplaned, collected our small bags and walked to the military’s small terminal building at Kabul International Airport. We would be meeting a Turkish driver who would take us to our company’s Afghanistan HQ in Kabul, but first we had to get off the military base. It was too far to walk, and the driver wasn’t allowed in. After a few frantic phone calls by Handan trying to sort things out, we realized that we would have to bum a ride off base. Here we were, two bedraggled civilians trying to get off a military base at 4:00 am. We were at last able to convince an officer from our flight that we were neither a threat nor a risk, and that we really just needed a lift to the base gate. We climbed into the back of a Humvee headed in that direction and were dropped off about 100 yards from the gate.
We walked towards the exit, bags in tow, surrounded by Afghan soldiers. A man approached us, speaking Turkish. Our driver. We exited the base with the local soldiers and got into the Turk’s car. The streets were empty. Dust hung in the air. The morning twilight was just revealing the world. We drove past shopkeepers sweeping their stoops. We saw bakers displaying the day’s first bread. There were checkpoints, men with guns. Who were they? Who were we to them? More checkpoints. Over there, the flashing lights of a police vehicle cut through the dust and dark. There, the American Embassy slid past like a ghost ship in the night. We drove and turned, the streets and the buildings smaller. Another turn and we stopped, our way blocked by a herd of goats foraging on garbage in the road. The shepherd cleared a path. We drove past. Another turn, and we stopped at a massive steel gate. The gate opened, and we were inspected by a guard. He waved us through, and we parked in front of an office. It was lighter now. We could see faces. A man walked out of the office. We got out of the car.
“Hoş geldiniz.” The man said. Welcome.
Handan smiled and greeted her father.
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