The sound of the engine was unbearably loud. I stared at the plane and waited in line to get on, trying to take it in. I tried to form words that would capture the moment, but none of it felt real.
The plane looked like a giant eggplant with wings decorated in Christmas lights. It was the only thing visible on the Kuwaiti horizon.
Contrary to what my drill sergeants told me, war actually was how the movies portrayed it, and I was a lead role. I saw myself through the lens of a camera on the long bus ride to basic training, doing pushups in the rain, and in Fort Riley, Kansas, wandering around in awe, contemplating how I came from the progressive culture of the West Coast to a Midwest wasteland.
Here I was again, from a different camera angle, lined up with my backpack on backwards and my rifle slung to my side, waiting like everyone else to get on a giant eggplant. When I try to remember it, the military is a big weird dream where I had no control and did things I did not want to.
The plane’s giant engines grew louder, accompanied by a high-pitched whine, and then faded. Over and over again.
My platoon sergeant jumped around the line. He inspected each soldier, slapped our helmets together and punched us jovially on the shoulder. He was the big brother you didn’t want. He inspected my rifle and made a playful threat to me if I vomited on the plane. He threw a playful punch into my right shoulder, twisting me 45 degrees. I heard him bouncing around the line, making the same comments, happy as ever. He wanted to get on the plane.
The plane was a C-130 Hercules, in service since the ‘50s, primarily as a cargo transport. One-hundred feet in length and 40 tons in weight. From where I stood, all I could see an empty grey shell with blinking lights. It was hard to imagine a something so big and ugly being safe.
There was no signal to begin boarding, but sure enough, like dominos, the line began to move. We waddled toward the gate that doubled as a boarding ramp at the plane’s rear. I stepped on. The closer I got, the more rickety the plane looked. Its bare-bone interior gave the impression of riding in a giant tin can. Cargo netting was draped from the plane’s ceiling. There were maybe 80 seats in the center and maybe half of that along the sides. As the center seats were filled up, I was assigned one of the roomier seats along the side. (Sometimes having a name at the end of the alphabet has its perks.)
As I got comfortable, I saw Ronnie climbing up the ramp. We usually called each other by our last names, or by a dumb nickname. How Ronnie became known by his first name is beyond me.
Maybe it was because he just looked like a Ronnie.
We gave each other a mutual nod and he sat next to me. His helmet hung low on his brow, just above his crooked wire-frame glasses. Gear dangled loosely from his chest. His face was hard, but there was always a goofy-kid-smile hidden on Ronnie’s face. It was apparent that Ronnie liked being a soldier, but he never really fit in. I guess that’s why I always liked him.
We didn’t say much. I held my hand out low. We clasped our gloved hands together and shook them as he settled in to his seat. He plugged an earbud into his skull and put a stick of gum into his mouth. I watched as the other soldiers did similar things. They spit wads of chewing tobacco into soda bottles and unbuckled the chinstraps on their helmets, like John Wayne. One or two of them pulled out paperback novels. Ronnie kept his helmet on the whole time. He stared at everyone while I stared at him.
The pilot’s voice boomed and crackled from an intercom. He sounded like any other pilot: male, relaxed, witty. He made a joke about an in-flight movie and then one about getting shot down by Iraqi anti-air guns. It wasn’t really funny.
The gate began closing, but stopped short of sealing the interior from the outside. I swear I could still see the night sky from where I sat. I was on a roller coaster and my seatbelt wouldn’t fasten.
I didn’t say anything, but it seemed I was the only one who noticed it.
Maybe I was.
Ronnie was still in outer space, chewing his gum like a cow. I wanted to talk to him, but he was focused on something else. I yelled his name, but nothing was audible above the plane’s engines.
The plane began to bounce around and roll forward as the brakes were released. Within minutes we were airborne and gaining altitude fast. It shook violently as if we were about to break through the atmosphere. The slightest tilt of the plane’s axis made my innards writhe.
I’m probably going to vomit, I thought. My sergeant will probably make me do pushups for it.
When the C-130 leveled out, the interior lights blacked out and red lights switched on. My heart skipped a beat and my face was hot. I looked to my left and right. Everyone else did the same. Ronnie and I stared at each other for a second. He shrugged, as if to say “that was weird.” Flashing red lights are usually a sign of imminent danger. I thought we were going down. But the red lights remained on the rest of the way. The plane’s crew didn’t make any announcement about the lights. Everyone just sort of sunk back into their seats. Informal. Strange.
I tapped Ronnie on the shoulder and yelled:
“WATCHA LISTENIN’ TO?”
I tapped my ear. He gave me his other earbud and I plugged it in. It was “Welcome to Paradise,” by Green Day. It’s fitting for going to a war-torn country for a year. I leaned back against the seat and tried to relax, maybe even sleep. But I couldn’t. Rock and roll in one ear and the deafening sound of machinery in the other. I leaned my head against the wall and my whole face vibrated with the engines. There weren’t even any windows to space out at.
I spent the rest of the trip in the ominous red light, staring at the intricacies of the plane’s interior: the airmen reading their books and not wearing their seatbelts, the sleeping faces of those around me, the ladder up to the cockpit. What are all the cargo nets for? I think about the guys in Special Forces who probably have to ride C-130s all the time.
I thought about Bob. A family friend and a WWII vet who was shot down over Germany while in the back of a transport plane. How the hell did Bob live anyway? I wondered what was going through his mind when he went down. The German’s took Bob prisoner and held him at a POW camp for more than a year. He ate nothing but rotten cabbage and potatoes before his release. I couldn’t imagine.
We were descending and we didn’t even know it. The plane bounced a little bit as we landed and eventually stopped. I expected more of a plummet straight into the earth. The big broken door lowered and the sound of the engines began to die. We put our backpacks on backwards again and picked up our rifles, waddling off the plane the same way we waddled in. It was after midnight when I put my boots down in Iraq. The concrete under my boots felt warm. The air smelled like a mixture of rotting eggs and burning rubber.
A strange smile crept across my face, but I didn’t know why. Maybe it had something to do with finally being here. Up until that moment, war had only been something on TV. I felt like Charlie Sheen, Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Tom Cruise.
From a different camera angle, I saw Ronnie marching behind me. His face was scrunched into a mixture of “fuck this” and “fuck, my bag is heavy.”
We were just like movie actors. Maybe not as handsome.