Wednesday, September 29, 2010

SGT Mimms and the Midnight at the Oasis

Aina has left her Tylenol lying out and the goats have eaten it.Or at least that's what I have gotten thus far. It is plainly a complex and hilarious tale, to judge by the amount of giggling and arm-waving going on amongst the group in the shadow of the thorn tree by the front gate telling it; Aina herself, her normal attitude of cool competence somewhat askew; her little sister Salaha clearly enjoying both the situation and the opportunity to tease her usually somewhat overbearing big sis; and Solomon, the Artful Dodger of Ain Fortaga, Aina's kid brother, raconteur, adventurer, and genial host to the American soldiers temporarily posted at OP 3-2, just enjoying chaos of any sort.

The three siblings are still chuckling, scuffling and cracking wise in Arabic when I return with the small envelope with the replacement tablets inside and carefully explain to Aina (through Solomon) that the pills are for her, when she works too hard and her muscles or head ache. That they are not good for the goats, who should be discouraged from eating them.

"Pills la kwaiis for goats, afham?" draws a renewed burst of giggles from the girls and a broad grin from Solomon, who is unimpressed by my scowl and earns a repetition of the prescription in English; "She needs to understand that the pills aren't good for the goats, Solomon. They will get sick. And she will have no more medicine until the new medic comes next month."

The boy nods, forwards a burst of Arabic to his sister, who nods in turn and looks at me with her dark, dark eyes, making shooing motions with her hands.

"La anz, la anz!" she replies - "no goats" - and rises, a taller black in the shadow of the thorn tree with her envelope closed within her hand. "Shukran, duktur." she says politely before turning away to go back to work.

"Afwan, Aina." I reply, zipping up my aid bag.Wadi Watir runs 40 miles into the jagged mountains of the desert interior, from the straggling coastal village of Nuweiba almost to the monastery of St. Catherine. It is the widest and longest valley in the mountains of the eastern Sinai and has probably been a well-traveled passage for humans since prehistoric times.

To have a presence in Wadi Watir is to meet, trade, converse, and, if armed, control, the movement of all these people and things that move along this ancient way; it is probably this which drew the Beduin here, hundreds or thousands of years ago, and has drawn us here today: Third Squad of A Company, 2nd Battalion (Light) (Airborne) 325th Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, now attached to the Multinational Force and Observers, Sinai.

Their tents hunker under the small copse of trees near the wet place along the valley wall that gives Ain Fortaga its "ain" - the "well" - in its name.

Our metal trailers and hovering plastic water tank kneel on the little shelf just up the wadi, at the foot of the bare reddish rock our maps identify as Gebel Mikemin.For two weeks we have lived here, eleven of us; nine men of Third Squad and their medic, and Sergeant Mimms of the 319th Field Artillery, one of the battalion's forward artillery observers. Weaponless without his cannons, a vestigal appendage of the armed might of the division we have left half a world behind us, a masterless page of the King of Battle he has volunteered to come with us, up the winding cleft of Wadi Watir, to the wet granite gravel, the thorn trees, the trailers, and the tents that are Ain Fortaga.

The locals met us almost before the whining sound of the white deuce-and-a-halves drifted away down the wadi. First Solomon, of course, the son of the house and loud admirer of all things American. Then, more carefully, the two sisters, smiling and quiet. After the kids had vetted us and pronounced us acceptable we; SSG Howard, the squad leader, the two team leaders and I, were invited to the big black tent at the base of the cliff where old Selim the patriarch poured us dark, sweet tea out of his ancient pot and asked us polite questions through his unusually subdued teenage grandson.But most days it was just us, the OP, our rounds of housekeeping chores, and Solomon.

Suleiman, to give him his rightful name, was a cheerful little villain, idle in the energetic way of boys everywhere, passing through an unidentifiable adolescence somewhere between a very mature twelve to a thin, underfed sixteen. He had been born in a Sinai occupied by Israelis, whom he disliked ("They mean mothafokas!") but seemed to respect withal, had seen the transfer to the Egyptians he despised (I would put his opinion of his supposed countrymen here but it was not a word or phrase but rather a rude noise and a pumping motion with his fist, which seems to have translated loosely as "What a bunch of jerkoffs") before being galvanized by the arrival of the Americans.Solomon thought that America was stone-cold, flat-out, stomp-down fucking awesome. Americans were the Baddest Dudes on the planet, and America was a place full of cool cars, hot chicks, and all the Stuff in the world. Solomon had learned his English from GIs, as you can probably guess, and had picked up a miscellany of habits, mostly bad ones, from the soldiers who had preceded us. Some vindictive sonofabitch had taught him to sing a craptacular country song which he adored and sang constantly and horribly. It's hard to describe the dissonance you got standing next to an Arab youth whose appearance and attire looked like 12th Century desert chic while he wailed:

"My beeby is American Made,
Born an' bred in da U.S.AAAAAAAAA.
From her sikky (silky) long hair to her sexy long legs
My beeby is American Maaaaaaaade!"

His casual destructiveness, though, was less cultural than universal, the innocent brutality of a young man who lived all his life in a tough way in very rugged place. Other than his family, to be respected, loved, or feared, and his American idols, everything else in the world; animal, vegetable, and mineral, was a toy to be played with roughly and discarded casually when broken.

Even in generosity Solomon was a hard little bastard. One afternoon he turned up at the gate holding a juvenile hawk tied to his arm with a bit of string. He explained that he had "found" the bird and wanted to share him with us. We were bored, and a long way from home, and the hawk was very beautiful in a merciless sort of way. So we brought the two of them into the compound against all MFO regulations and standing orders and spent a half hour gingerly holding the bird and photographing it close up while Solomon sat at the picnic table and enjoyed some bug juice ("So green!" he exclaimed) and a handful of B-ration cookies.Finally the hawk-admiring and hawk-photographing was done, and SGT Turner made to undo the string and let the bird go.

"Stop! Wait!" Solomon yelped as crumbs and cup with the last green lees flew off his lap, "No let him go! I play with him!"

"Solomon, this is a wild hawk," Turner said sternly, "not a toy."

Solomon looked sulky, claiming that he had caught the hawk and he was the one to decide when to let it go. Turner merely tossed the bird into the sky and it rowed into the air, turning up the wadi and powering low over the wire and past the thorn tree down by the latrine. Solomon dashed across the helicopter pad and rounded the wire, legs pistoning and scooping up a handful of rocks which suggested that his "finding" the bird in the first place had involved hitting it with a stone.

The two of them vanished down the canyon but only one returned, a Solomon whose entire afternoon was darkened by an unaccustomed anger at all damned GIs...until SSG Howard made him a kite that banished all care and loss and occupied almost all his waking hours for the next several days.Then there was the time...

But I started out by telling you this story was going to be about SGT Mimms, didn't I?

Well, then.

The story of Leroy Mimms and Jutta began one warm afternoon that was, in respects of scenery, weather, activities, and persons entirely identical to the dozen afternoons before and after that. The guys hung out, made meals, exercised, pulled gate guard or radio watch, slept, or found something to occupy their idle time. For an hour or so Solomon, his sisters, SGT Maxwell and a couple of the guys entertained themselves throwing rocks against the blank lower wall of Gebel Mikemin.SP4 Ahlers, the squad's grenadier, got his thumb stuck in a tin can of olives and had to have it cut off (the can, not the thumb) with a P-38, and a stitch put in.

SGT Mimms was hanging out with the guys at the front gate when Jutta walked up the wadi.

OP 3-2 wasn't Checkpoint 3A, but unlike a lot of the other OPs - especially unlike the well-named Remote Site 3-5 - it entertained a random, slow, but regular drift of people passing by. We had several Egyptian civilians on unstated but unhurried business, and a hiker every other day or so. Typically these were young adult or young-middle-aged Europeans taking a wandering trip through the Levant. Many were German, a handful were French, once a pair of Spanish college women.I still fondly recall an English couple, both Royal Army, retired, handsome in the spare, elegant British upper-class way who stopped by in their dusty Land Rover. They looked and acted briskly capable, as though they were seldom surprised and never at a loss, and were clearly pleased with the world, themselves, and almost everyone they met. They were genuinely good people in a very lonely place, and all the more welcome for it.

The woman who hiked up the wadi that afternoon, however, was not particularly unusual.

She was somewhere between her late twenties and early forties, with that tireless, wind-chapped, weathered look that people who spend a good deal of time outdoors for enjoyment often seem to acquire. Dun-colored blouse and hiking shorts, well-scuffed sturdy sandals, a mane of frizzly hair stuffed under a wide-awake hat were common to the type. The peculiarities that made her Jutta were her remarkable expressive, long fingers slightly yellowed by the cigarettes she smoked aggressively, each motion of the smoking made just a little too decisively, too emphatically for a pastime; the way she tilted her head like a curious blackbird, the impression strengthened by her small, bright, dark eyes; her English, spoken with clipped energy and a rough Mitteleuropa accent.

She stopped by the gate and asked if we could refill her water bottles.We weren't supposed to, of course, being agents of the ponderous majesty of the Camp David peace treaty and all, but I loafed down from the TOC trailer with a jerrycan and filled her bottles up as we always did, politely refused a smoke, and stayed to chat with the guys at the gate while she made small talk with Sergeant Mimms.

It wasn't until later that evening that I looked down to the gate as I passed between the trailers and noticed that although the next guard relief was on the gate, Leroy and the German visitor were still there, talking and sitting in the long shadows by the gate tree. Leroy Mimms, while a nice guy, was usually not the chattiest cathy in the dollhouse. I wondered what the heck this brand-new couple was finding to talk about, so I casually strolled down to the gate as if savoring the Ain Fortaga twilight, cadged a chicklet off of Ahlers, asked about his owie thumb, and carefully listened in to Jutta and Leroy talking.

What Jutta and Leroy were talking about was sex.

Not crudely. Not a blatent, obvious, fancy-a-bit-of-the-rumpy-bumpy, "lets get into the bushes and have one off now" sort of conversation. She was asking him about himself, what he did, what he liked, where he lived. But you could hear the invitation in her questions, and the growing eagerness in his replies, that made me kinda skeevy to listen in; it felt like listening to pillow talk.

So I bid the guards good evening, said goodbye to Jutta (assuming she would be gone in the morning as were most of our passersby) and waved to SGT Mimms, who might have been penguin hunting in Antarctica for all I was standing next to him. The man was raptured.

I brushed my teeth, read a few chapters of my paperback novel, and lay down for a nap before my midnight-to-six radio watch thinking nothing more about them.I was shaken awake at quarter of twelve, shuffled into my shower shoes and across the little courtyard between the trailers to relieve SGT Turner, drew a cup of coffee from the Silex and stood in the open door of the trailer to survey my domain, my charge for the next six hours.

The little outpost looked almost lovely in the moonlight; all stark whites and depthless blacks. The sheepish faded daytime cheapness of the trailers, the scruffy gear and the ugly utility of the place were cleaned and sharpened by the monochrome of night. The coffee tasted rich and earthy, the night silent and chill; I felt calm, alert but calm. I felt like I could make myself so motionless and still that I could actually feel the stars wheeling overhead, cold pricks of light in the dark sky, feel the earth turning under me, feel the weight of space and time both pressing down and lifting me up. I felt like I was on the verge of knowing some great thing.

And just then Jutta's high, clear voice floated down from the night sky, down from the palm grove just up the wadi, down in crystal-hard clarity.

"Ach, mein Leroy!" she insisted, "Reit me, mein Leroy, reit me so like a desert stallion!"

The impossibly clear desert air carried along with her voice the sounds of a scuffle, a muffled flurry, like a clumsy work crew trying to stuff a small but vigorous animal into a gunnysack and beat it to death with their hands.

"Ja! Ja! Mein tiger! Mein general!" continued Jutta remorselessly, "Plunder me! Oh, ja, das ist unglaublich! Das ist unmoglich!

When the keening began I honestly wasn't sure who was wailing and whether it was joy, or agony, or both.

I went inside the TOC trailer, closed the door, and turned up the shortwave. It was Warsaw Pact pop music night on Radio Moscow and you haven't heard rock until you've heard Lithuanian Young Pioneer rock.

Everything was quiet when I turned in at dawn, and although I mentioned to several of my cronies that they might let SGT Mimms sleep in that morning since his new girlfriend had kept him up pretty much all night no one thought much of it until Jutta turned up at the gate at midmorning and Leroy Mimms did not.

When I awoke around noon Jutta was still there, squatting under the gate thorn tree smoking irritably. SGT Mimms was still not visible, although someone said they thought he might have gone to the latrine before dawn but not returned. I followed the whitewashed-cobble pathway down to the jakes and, on a hunch, ducked into the sandbagged bunker that overwatched the up-wadi approach and surprised a crouched, Caliban-like Mimms shoving a C-Rat cracker into his cakehole.

"So, good afternoon, oh mighty lover of women." I smiled, "How come your girlfriend is all alone out front?"

Mimms jumped like a man goosed with a cattle prod, one hand going protectively towards his crotch.

"She still there? Oh, fuck me. I'm starved, I ain't got no crackers left, and she get me if I come out before she gone."

This was a development, and I leaned against the opening of the bunker and eyed the cowering artilleryman carefully. He did have a twitchy sort of expression and a hunted look which didn't seem to fit with the passionate cries of the night before.

"Are you joking, man? You managed to get laid, here, in the fucking womanless Sinai, here where there is a woman behind every tree and there are eight fucking trees in the entire goddam peninsula? You may well be the only GI to EVER get laid at OP 3-fucking-2, the only line dog to bury his boner in the history of the OP, and you're hiding in a damn bunker? Think of the history you two made last night! Think of the humanity! Think of getting some more! Where's your pride, man?"

Mimms seemed to shrink a little.

"You don't know, doc," he whimpered, "Jutta, she crazy. She bite me, she tug my stuff, she don't never let me sleep or leave me alone. She want to just keep doin' it, doin' it, all the time, and she hit me when I try to stop. She say if I don't keep going she bite it off. I was afraid to sleep with her."

"Sounded to me like you already did that, sergeant."

"No, doc, I mean sleep-sleep. I came back here when she gave up last night 'cause with her jumpin' on me, pokin' me, lickin' me I was wore out. Fuck me, doc, I feel like a used otter pop."

I thought about this for a minute.

"Well, I feel like a traitor to my gender, but hows about I try to get her to move on, hey?"

"Oh, man, you a pal, doc."

So I loped over the little compound and found the Teutonic Titwillow still squatting in the shade. She was inclined to be brusque, and was plainly frustrated at being denied her new paramour, but eventually rose, butted her smoke and shouldered her backpack.

"You say gootbye to the sergeant, yes? You tell him I be back three, four days, we meet here, I show him good hike in wadi, ja?"

I agreed to carry the message, she nodded sharply and moved off up the wadi but moving with something missing in her step, her usual jerky energy muted as if by some vague but lingering regret.

Sergeant Mimms took his meals in the trailer for the next week, emerging only for brief, furtive dashes to the latrine or the shower. Even the squad hard men complained that his paranoia was making everyone goofy, and we were all relieved when a passerby from battalion (since the story was too good to withhold, both Jutta and her stallion were unit-wide celebrities for the next couple of weeks or so) reported seeing her hitchhiking north on the MSR just outside Taba, looking irked.

Solomon dutifully reported his observations to me that Saturday evening as we hung out by the wire and I waited for my radio shift.

"Sarn't Mimms, he went with that lady into the bushes but then she no can find him, she looked everywhere, asked me if I seen him, she got real mad! That some crazy shit, hunh, doc!"

"Yeah, Solomon, well, you know how people like to do crazy stuff, hunh."

"That no shit, Doc."

I finished the sweet tea old Selim had poured for me a little earlier. Solomon drifted away to play frisbee with Ahlers. SGT Turner and SSG Howard were lifting weights. SGT Mimms loitered outside the TOC trailer, looking relieved and just a tiny bit dissatisfied.

"Mein tiger..." I murmured.

It was time for my shift, I had a fresh pot of coffee, and it was Arabic pop music night on Radio Moscow and you haven't heard bubblegum pop until you've heard Lebanese Druze bubblegum pop.And the sun went down behind the mountains to the west.

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