Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The best thing about Iraq

So I'm driving along Route 33W near Charlottesville on my way to Shenandoah National Forest. As soon as I start gaining altitude, the sky becomes curiously overcast and I can see the wind is picking up by the minute.
Skyline Drive exit. I roll up to the ranger toll booth in the new Mustang I rented for the next 20 days. A quick stop in the mountains as I head out to visit friends and family all points beyond. A blast of winter air hits my face as I drop the window to pay the entrance fee.

"Yeah, reading 42 degrees right now. She's dropping fast. Shoot, it was so warm yesterday, too."

Crap. It was 89 degrees in Norfolk when I left. "Great! Hey, I'm meeting a lot of people up here tonight. There's supposed to be this huge concert at Big Meadows Campground, and everyone I've talked to is coming out. Have you seen them yet?"

Ranger looking at me with her mouth open and brow furrowed: "Um, what?"

"Yeah, huge rock concert at the campground. Supposed to be a couple' hundred showing up. You didn't hear about it?"


"I have an extra ticket if you want to go. Is this going to be a problem?" I ask ever so innocently.

"Well, yes! We can't have that up here. Who issued the permit for this? This is a National Forest!!!"

I can't stand it any more, and give up the joke lest I be accused of having fun at someone else's expense. I get a complimentary glare along with my Skyline pass. She needs more humor in her life. . . not aware of this fact yet.

Register, find the camp spot, and set up the tent. Find long sleeve t-shirt, jacket, and the hat I just so happen to bring along. I haven't mentioned this yet, but 42 degrees is quite the change from where I came from. I'll get to that in a minute.

George pulls up in his custom conversion van. Complete with bed. Obviously when he mentioned camping in the mountains to me as I was traveling back from Iraq, we each had our separate ideas of what constitutes "camping". His version is looking so much more appealing than mine right now.
Procure the firewood, make some coffee, and fire up the grill. As I start jumping up and down to maintain body temperature, George and I are tag-teaming both the grill and the fire simultaneously as dusk fades quickly to night.
After some top sirloin and hamburgers, the campfire is roaring along quite nicely. Which is a good thing when your current perspective of cool mountain air goes something along the lines of "Oh God, I'm going to lose an appendage to frostbite before morning". I forgot my flask of Irish whiskey, but at least I brought plenty of beer.
So here's the plan: if I drink enough beer and sit close enough to the fire to singe my pants, I should be able to 1) raise my body temperature high enough to fall asleep, and 2) once asleep, the alcohol should keep me there until morning. It's not a very good plan. I already know this. . .but it's all I got.
9:30 and I bid George a good night as he's talking about how many thermal blankets he has in the van. "That's great, George". I'm walking to the bathrooms with toothbrush and toothpaste, and swear I see a few flakes of snow float just beyond my night vision.
I'm in boxers, thermal shirt, and a winter cap. Leave the hiking socks on for good measure. I can do this. Heck, I just came from Iraq and a little cold front isn't going to ruin my superhero image. The sleeping bag zipper was checked and re-checked four times to ensure I couldn't zip up a few more centimeters. Maybe I can get a tight enough seal to re-breathe CO2 all night; a double effect of drowsiness and re-claiming lost body heat.
I'm wide awake. Worse than that: I'm already freezing. Don't worry, I tell myself, the beer is going to kick in any minute now. Settle yourself in, and let nature's medicinal barley and hop fermentation take care of the rest. Yeah, right.
An hour later, and I find myself at the bottom of the sleeping bag. In the fetal position. I can't stop shivering. Where did that beer go! I haven't drank in months, and there's no way my freakin' liver processed all that alcohol so fast! Doesn't this work for blizzard casualties?
The bottom of the sleeping bag. This is where I spent the next nine hours; a quivering mass of protoplasm. No sleep. All night. . .I think.
Morning finally comes. Character-building experiences like these only bring me closer to my final interpretation of what eternity looks like.

"Sleep OK, George?"

"Well, it was a little chilly when I first got in the van, but that didn't last long. I slept so good last night, I didn't even notice I was sleeping on my arm wrong. Bugger kinda' hurts this morning. The thermal blankets get so hot after a while. Oh, hey how did you make out in that tent."

George can be a funny guy. "Well, lets see. First of all, I didn't sleep. Second of all, I was crammed at the bottom of that sleeping bag in the fetal position all night. George, it's. . .oh, 80 degrees colder than where I just came from."

George chuckles "Yeah, I can see how that can be a difference."
Thank you George.

I've been on American soil 19 days now. I'm not counting. In fact I had no idea until an hour ago when I decided I thought I should know since I keep telling everyone "about two weeks". All the "wow" factor has just about run it's course. Culture shock at every turn is slowly fading as I integrate back to life again.
I'm still enjoying. Savoring every second. Culture shock and all. The only adjustment I'm really worried about at this point is temperature shock.

In all honesty, when I really have to pin it down, the hardest thing about coming back are the questions. Not a lot of questions. A lot of the same questions.
"So, how was Iraq?" Can I answer this one in two sentences or less?
"Well, should we be there?" Dunno, ask Rumsfeld.
"When are you due to go back?" I just left, people. Do I really have to ponder when I have to go back? Dunno, ask Cheney.
Every time, without fail, I know I'm giving this pained look as I attempt to answer yet another thoroughly complex question that I know will take hours to actually answer. How do I streamline the responses into a politician's soundbite? Dunno. . .
So I've resorted to this: "I can tell you the best thing about Iraq." This is getting them every time. I'm not trying to bait anyone. Just looking for a way to avoid the questions I'm not ready to answer.
"The best thing about Iraq is that I'm not there."