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The Middle Stone

I remember the summer I was thirteen. The Chicago Cubs had traded for veteran first-baseman Fred McGriff, whose role would be to support Sammy Sosa on the offense. Sosa, three years removed from his homerun chase with Mark McGuire, still routinely cranked homers onto Waveland Avenue. He just couldn’t do it by himself, so the Cubs brought in McGriff to bat clean-up. My brother and I listened to the games on the stereo in our living room in Iowa. We knew the ten-second station identification by heart, spoke it along with the radio, could almost see the field, the blue stripes of the players’ jerseys. The announcer, Pat Hughes, had a voice as bright and clear as a trumpet, and I liked how he called Fred McGriff “Freddie,” like they were buddies. It was the summer of 2001.

Two months later, I remember a TV reporter interviewing a local man who owned a crop duster. People worried that terrorists would steal crop dusters and fly them over the cornfields and soybean fields, dispensing biological weapons. People worried the next target would be America’s food supply. The guy tried assuring everyone he secured his plane carefully and kept a close eye on it. I don’t remember how the Cubs finished the season. My memories become this other sort of thing.

In the summer of 2005 a friend gave me a going-away present. A book, Slaughterhouse-Five, that he wanted me to read on the flight to Georgia. I was going away to basic training. We weren’t allowed to take any personal stuff to training, so I read it before I went. The book still reminds me of the summer before I left. I still love its opening lines: “All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” I admire that assertion of true-ness, and the wry disruption of it. How those clauses lean against each other, the assertion against the impossibility. It’s like the language is made of archways, the words leaning against each other, an equal amount of pressure on both sides, holding each other up. But it’s like the words don’t lean against each other, exactly. The keystone of the arch is not another word. Instead, the keystone is the space inside the reader’s brain where the language may collide, or come together, or rest. So when No Words Can Describe It, or the matter is Beyond Words, it is still possible to use the void that remains. To arrange an archway around the void, so the reader can belong there in the middle, being the keystone, holding up the language, and it can be there, within the person, where the words may collide, or come together, or rest.

At a house party during my junior year of college, I was getting drunk with some friends, and one of them told me if I ever needed to run away from the army, he would help. He said, if you ever need to get away, if you get called up to go to Iraq, you don’t have to go. My parents would look out for you at their house in Kansas, if you needed a place to lay low. I drank my jungle juice from its red plastic cup. I wanted to make a joke like, I think I’d rather go to Iraq than Kansas, but it seemed distasteful and I decided it wouldn’t make much sense coming from a kid from Iowa. So I said okay, thanks, that’s really generous. I knew his father was wealthy, so I figured their house must’ve been really huge, with plenty of extra rooms for hiding runaway soldiers. The guy said, I’m serious about this. You really can. You shouldn’t have to go to Iraq if you don’t want to. I laughed and said thanks. He said he was being serious. He kept talking about Iraq. Iraq Iraq Iraq. It was early 2009, and students on campus were outraged about Iraq. I kept saying, thanks, okay, okay, and he kept saying he was serious. I told him it just wasn’t like that. Not for me. But it was weird trying to explain that I didn’t want to run away from a war. It was like if I didn’t want to run away, that meant I secretly wanted to go. But that wasn’t true either. I couldn’t explain it.

One time, a few guys were sitting around the barracks at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, talking about music. Sergeant Jones said he used to play “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve over a rigged-up sound system in his Humvee. It was always the first song his crew listened to each morning on their convoys out of Al Asad. The violin, guitar, and vocals blended and swelled as the sun came up over the beautiful, shitty desert, he said. In the barracks, he talked about it fondly. Maybe because his contract was almost over. He knew he wasn’t going back.

Specialist Andrews told me how one of his buddies, back in Iraq, said he would only reenlist if Chuck Norris put him in a chokehold while he signed the papers. Chuck Norris jokes were still really popular back then. (When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn’t pushing himself up, he’s pushing the earth down.) Turns out, soon after the comment, Chuck Norris flew to Iraq to entertain the troops. He visited their FOB. Specialist Andrews and some others all remembered what the buddy said. So, arrangements were made. And the buddy just figured, well, all right, I guess it’s fate. He signed his reenlistment papers while Chuck Norris had him in a chokehold.

Private First Class Riley was this polite red-headed kid who almost shot himself in the foot. We were training at Ripley, learning to high/low the corner of a building. Two guys—one crouched, one standing—alternated firing around the corner toward the pretend bad guys. Riley was the high man. He moved around the corner, fired three shots from the standing position, moved back, and lowered his rifle so the barrel pointed at the ground. The low-man crouched near his legs. Riley turned the selector back to SAFE. But the rifle malfunctioned, the selector prompted it to fire again—the sound of the shot, then a hole in the dirt inches from his boot. Then a sergeant nearby, shouting cease fire, cease fire, cease fire. Then Riley, holding the rifle at arms’ length as though he had never seen one before.

Later that day, the unit armorer inspected the weapon and found that a certain pin had broken, fallen to touch another pin which had set off the trigger mechanism. Riley hardly spoke the rest of the week. He went AWOL shortly thereafter. He became a waiter at a faux-Mongolian restaurant in Iowa City. He served me and my wife one time. His first name was Jeff, apparently.

Sergeant Ross was my team leader for a while, and one day we were taking a smoke break on a training field at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and he was telling a story which involved him describing how he kept an extra AK-47 in his Humvee in Iraq, in case he ever accidentally shot somebody who turned out to be unarmed. He called it a drop weapon.

One night about a year later, during pre-mobilization training for Afghanistan, a few of us went for a run around the perimeter of our pretend fire base. The lieutenant led the way, because he was a Ranger, and Rangers lead the way. He had us wearing our body armor for the extra weight, doing pull-ups at the pull-up bar each time we time we ran by. After three or four laps, he spotted a big heavy rock sitting along the path. He decided we should pick it up and carry it with us. We could pass the rock from one guy to the next, see if we could carry it all the way around the pretend fire base.

For team building.

The rock was huge and awkward to carry while running, but we picked it up and passed the rock from guy to guy, kind of dumping the rock into the next guy’s arms. Whoever wasn’t carrying the rock rooted on the guy who had it: c’mon, carry that fuckin rock! And slowly, we got it around the pretend fire base. We all high-fived about the rock. Like hell yeah, we’re really gonna kick some serious ass in Afghanistan. Because we had carried that fuckin rock.

I felt sorry for the little kids who always wanted our empty water bottles. The kids, Afghans, carried around canvas sacks and filled them with garbage. And water bottles were especially plentiful: every soldier on the border crossing drank five or six or eight per day. Dusty plastic bottles sat atop the concrete barricades like trophies in a case. The kids stood across the road with their sacks and pointed, and at first, I let them come over and I delivered the empties right into their hands. But also, later, I remember not feeling sorry for them. I threw the bottles across the road and they scurried to pick them up. Or I crushed the bottles and shoved them inside my assault pack. Either way, the kids took home their sacks and gathered all the trash into one focused pit and started a fire. And over the fire a man cooked dinner for his family. Over the melted plastic. I remember not feeling sorry for the kids because who was that man? The one cooking dinner. Who the fuck was that?

The official motto at Forward Operating Base Torkham was The Gateway to Freedom, which referred to the nearby border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan, called Torkham Gate. When we encountered officers around the FOB, we used the motto to greet them. We saluted and said Gateway. They saluted back and said To Freedom. Torkham Gate, however, did not feature any physical gate. The boundary between the countries was marked by a heavy chain slunk across the road. When it rained, the dirt of the road turned to mud and the chain sunk into the mud. Gateway, then, referred to the Gate, which referred to the chain, which referred to the idea that this spot upon the road was the very edge of the war, which of course it wasn’t.

Anytime we were driving the trucks within the FOB, battalion policy required one guy to be on the ground, walking ahead of the vehicle, to make sure no idiots were accidentally run over. Once, we were coming in from a long mission, and I hopped out of the truck to walk it up the hill, about three hundred meters to the motor pool. Before closing the door, my driver leaned over in my direction. He said, Hey, Sergeant…

…Yeah, what?

…Remember driveways?

Each week a young local man shepherded four donkeys from the FOB to a nearby mountain. He loaded the donkeys with cases of water and food at our FOB, then walked a narrow, winding foot trail up the mountain, toward a coalition observation post at the top, where he unloaded the supplies. When he returned to our front gate, he had to show an ID card proving he worked for us. Two Afghan guards searched him and the donkeys for explosives. One day I was on duty at the gate, in a plywood shack where we kept a computer and stored the ID cards. The guards did their searches on the other side of a wall of barricades. The people they searched—mostly local men who helped with construction projects around the FOB—came around to the shack to drop off their ID. A guard brought a young man over to me. The man didn’t have his ID to drop off, said he didn’t get it back the last time he left. I didn’t recognize him, asked him who he was.

He responded in English: I am donkey pilot.

I looked at him. What?

He repeated: I am donkey pilot.

He gestured past the barricades, presumably to the waiting donkeys.

Ohhh… okay, yeah, sure. You’re that guy. I wondered if maybe I should teach him a different word to describe his job. Something more technical. But it seemed like, no, actually, pilot… that was pretty cool. Had a kind of Thoreauvian charm to it. I smiled and said to him, fuck yeah, man: the donkey pilot. He saw it made me happy, and he smiled, proud of himself. All right, I said, let’s see if we can find your ID.

We were moving away from the border region into a remote valley. Our gear and equipment was ratchet-strapped onto the outside of the vehicles and we were convoying down Route Illinois, a paved two-lane road that curved along the Kabul River, when we saw a group of American trucks a hundred meters off the road, along an unpaved route. They were in a defensive perimeter. A truck in the center had its front end blown off, the fiberglass jagged and blackened. We identified the unit, and our lieutenant switched to their frequency. Then he flipped back over, reported that they’d hit an IED a minute or two earlier. They were still clearing the area of secondary explosives. But they said they could recover their own truck. They didn’t need our help. So we kept moving.

As we did, the LT said: All right fellas, keep your eyes open. We’re in Indian country.

I rolled my eyes at the phrase—really, LT?—but at the same time I knew what he meant. I knew what to do. I remember thinking I knew what to do.

A battalion-level staffer on another base had decided that our new outpost needed a proper LZ. No more setting down helicopters on ordinary flat ground. We had to pave it. To do so, we’d need a synthetic liquid compound called Rhino Snot, which worked like quick-dry cement. We convoyed to the nearest outpost to acquire it. Returning, we followed the same long trail through the mountains, which one guy had nicknamed the Nature Trail From Hell, because of its sharp cliffs and steep turns. The Rhino Snot sloshed around in semi-transparent drums strapped to flatbeds. The weight of the liquid gave the drivers a tough time, and the flatbeds weren’t suited for the road anyway. The armored semis kept sinking into loose sand or getting stuck trying to 6-point-turn around hard bends and switchbacks. Trying to get unstuck, they maneuvered the semis as best as they could, but it just made the trail crumble even more for the next vehicle. Then as they worked out of the deep ruts, their trailers would start sliding off a cliff or down a long grade, and somebody would key their mic and yell, You’re gonna lose it! The convoy took eleven hours to drive thirty miles. But we had our Rhino Snot.

Memorial Day 2013: My wife Jessica and I had moved to San Francisco. My brother and his family were visiting from Iowa, and conveniently, the Cubs were in town playing the Giants. We had good seats behind third base; I would root for my new home team while my brother rooted for the Cubbies. Before the game started, the announcer said in a serious tone Ladies and gentlemen… so the audience stood for the national anthem. But the announcer continued: …will all the veterans please stand to be recognized. But pretty much everyone was already standing. A few people groaned, like they had been tricked. The non-veterans sat back down. I, ceremoniously, did not sit back down, which felt like a different thing than standing up. But I stood, and felt weird being looked at. I had taken off my hat because I was ready for the anthem too, and I used it to bonk Jessica on the head, just to do something. Soon, the worst-in-the-league Cubs would begin a thorough pummeling of the best-in-the-league Giants. But first, the crowd was told to cheer, and they did.

My two-year-old nephew sat in the blue racecar at the playground. I stood behind the racecar making driving sounds and pushing the car up and down on its springs. I asked him, where are we racing this time? He said, to the grocery store! We had just raced to the grocery store a minute ago, but the kid was in charge, so I made the driving sounds. Then apparently we had arrived at the grocery store, because he dismounted the car, walked to the edge of the playground. He returned with two oak leaves. He placed both leaves atop the car’s blue plastic spoiler. He said, these are the groceries, let’s take them home.

Born and raised in southeast Iowa and served seven years in the Iowa National Guard. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Kenyon Review online, the Georgia Review, North American Review, Ninth Letter, and BOAAT, among other publications.