June 4, 2011
Dateline: Hindu Kush Mountains, Afghanistan
From: George (1/2 century)
Subject: Noise and Rumbles Everywhere, but Not a Kid in Sight
The content of most of the updates I send is my opinion. After all, I’m the correspondent, and as Yogi Berra used to say “I call ‘em like I see ‘em”. There are a couple things however, that are not subject to opinion: loud noises and earthquakes. You either have them or you don’t. Here at Camp Phoenix, we have them.
First, the earthquakes. We have an average of 3 or so a day. About half are tiny tremors, so slight that after they pass you are not sure you felt it, so you have to ask someone to verify. “Hey Sar’ Gilmore, was that a quake just then”? “No, numb nuts, it was the fat girls aerobics class. Of course it was an earthquake!” Sometimes, though they are real rockers, shaking windows and occasionally knocking people out of bed. Not scary, exactly, just weird. I think in my entire life back home, I only ever felt one or two. These quakes are reassuring in a way. They remind me that even though this country has been at some kind of war or another for 50 years, the earth here is still young and vibrant and growing. The Good Lord doesn’t pay any more attention to our foolishness than the Man in the Moon.
The noise is something else entirely. This is the noisiest damn place I’ve ever seen. First off, there is the Kabul International Airport a few miles away, so there is a constant roar of jet planes coming and going 24/7. Here’s something weird: there is a commercial side to the Kabul airport. No shit. Planes full of tourists and businessman. Not from the states, mind you, but from places like China and Singapore. It’s weird, the base here will be on lockdown because of a suicide bomber blowing up at the gate, while a plane full of Chinese businessmen with cases full of product samples are going through customs a mile down the road. Surreal.
Next are the choppers, at least a couple of dozen a day, coming in, taking off, throwing dust in the air. They swarm around like wasps, carrying mail, people, supplies and whatnot. All types and sizes too. The helipad is about 50 feet from my hooch. At first they bothered me, but now I don’t even hear them, kind of like living next to the railroad. Oddly enough, the running track encircles the helipad. I can’t think of a worse place to put it, but they did. There you are jogging along, trying to get healthy, gagging on the dust and getting a splitting headache from the chop-chop of the rotors.
That’s not the end of the noise. On the “roads” around camp, there is a constant stream of traffic. First there are the “jingle trucks”. These are like afghan semis. They are flat bed diesel trucks that pick up trash, ferry supplies and other mundane tasks. These trucks are kind of cool, because the afghan owners really decorate them up. Hippie beads at the windows, fancy painting along the sides, strings of seashells and coins where the mud flaps should be (these strings tinkle like wind chimes when the trucks roll, which is why they call them Jingle trucks). They always have at least a dozen afghani’s clinging to the sides or perching on the load, singing and shouting and laughing. That’s another thing: afghanis only work in groups of 10 or 15. I’m not kidding. For instance they have a latrine crew of a dozen guys. You would think a dozen guys would make short work of a job like cleaning the toilets, but no, they don’t. They spend a lot of time barking orders at each other, bickering, refusing to work until apologies are issued and generally driving each other and everybody else crazy.
Big Rhinos are heavily armored transport vehicles used to ferry people around from base to base and pick up people at the airport. When they head out to make their rounds, they add their deep throaty rumble to the cacophony, along with thick streams of diesel smoke. MRAPS go out on patrol, not as noisy but more of them, and finally little John Deere gators zipping around everywhere, like busy ants, honking these wimpy little horns that you can’t even hear until they’re on top of you. All vehicles except the gators are required to have a ground guide in camp. That means some poor bastard has to get out and walk ahead of the vehicle, I suppose to make sure it doesn’t mash a bunch of folks by mistake. Besides being a dusty, shitty job, it also means all these loud, smoky vehicles move along at the speed of smell. It’s a real treat when you get boxed in folks, take my word for it.
Finally, the foundation for all the other noise is the vibrating hum of the diesel generators. Everything here is run by diesel generators. Everything. Diesel generators make “dirty power”. You’ll have to ask Ivey for the details, but the way I understand it is the power fluctuates on the voltage all the time, meaning that everything has to be hooked up to battery units to keep the power constant. They work pretty good, but not that great. Shit is always going down, lights going out, computers rebooting (right after you’ve done a shitpile of work, which you have now lost).
All this noise is hard to get used to. I’ve adjusted, but believe it or not, there is another type of noise that I miss, and wish I could hear. Kids. There isn’t one single kid anywhere. No ball games, no bikes, nothing. I have always liked kids, but I guess I never realized how much until I got here. I remember how the sound of kids makes kind of a backdrop on a lazy Saturday afternoon. You can hear them in the distance, laughing, yelling, arguing; you can’t make out words, just a comforting, background buzz. I miss little Carson, my Porky Brockway, eyes shining when he tells me a story. I can hear him imitating me, bellowing at the dogs at the top of his lungs. Makes me kind of blue. I never understood what ‘deafening silence’ was, until now.
Today’s my birthday. I’m 50. Happy Birthday me.