Monday, October 5, 2009

Nightmares And Dreamscapes

Apologies to Stephen King for stealing his title "Nightmares and Dreamscapes", but it was an appropriate title for this entry.

I had THE nightmare again last night.

The one from the first Gulf War where there's an Iraqi soldier on a roof with an RPG, and no one can see him except me, and no matter how loud I yell "WATCH THE ROOFTOPS!!!" no one can hear me.

I wrote this short story a few months ago in an attempt to exorcise that demon from my brain once and for all, and I thought it had worked.

Until last night.

Enjoy, and feel free to comment. It's based on an actual event I experienced at the end of the first Gulf War.


The doctor at the VA clinic finally admitted I may have a sleep disorder and entered it in my record. The entry gives me a few bucks of disability pay, but the dream hasn’t gone away.

It’s because of a recurring dream I have. I have it about twice a week, it's one of those where you think you’ve woken up but you’re really still asleep. No matter how many times I have it I never recognize it. In this dream I wake up and someone is in the house.

Usually there’re two of them, sometimes three, silhouetted in the bedroom doorway by the glow of the hall night light. They move silently but by their outlines I can see they’re not big men and if I could get loose from the sheets I know I could take them.

I struggle to get up as they cross the room, ready to lash out in defense of home, wife, and children - Individual Combat Training was the one gift I carried from the Army back into the world. But before I can kick free they are beside the bed. One of them leans over me and a weight bears down on my chest, pushing me into the bed, pressing the life out of me. Then the sheet fans over my face, blocking out the dim light as the pressure increases and I feel my ribs breaking.

That’s how I know it’s a dream - my ribs don’t pop, the sheet doesn’t rustle - there’s no sound. I hear voices when people speak, but not engines, or ocean waves, or footsteps. Not the way I dream, anyway.

Tonight I wake up in a low-tone body sweat, one foot on the floor as I coil to jump, ready to tear and rip and savage. But the only movement in the room is the ceiling fan pushing the warm, humid air. K stirs on her side of the bed. She raises on one elbow to look at me blearily, then rolls back over - she’s grown used to what an old girlfriend called my “jump-ups.” I look at her curled around her pillow and the tightness eases a little in my chest; everything is all right, everyone is safe.

I know it was a dream, there’s really no need to get up, but after watching two minutes click by in the red numbers of the bedside clock I get up, it’s the only way I can be sure. K inches over into the depression left by my body and mumbles a question. “I’m just checking on the kids,” I say. She groans and pulls my pillow under her head.

My old girlfriend called it “walking the perimeter”. Most of the women in my life have said I have too much soldier in me, but they don’t understand military training, they take so much out of you, they have to fill the hollowed-out core with something else. There’s the First General Order: I will guard everything within the limits of my post and will quit my post only when properly relieved. There’s eleven more - one for each of the twelve disciples, my drill sergeant used to say to make the Bible-belters choke.

I feel my way along the closet doors to the hall.

The girl’s room is next to ours. It is larger than our son’s because she is older; rank has its privileges, even at seven years. There’s a chest of drawers, a dresser with ornate mirror, a four-post double bed with heirloom quilt... K’s touch. It doesn’t look like a child’s room. There’re no toys or books or clothes strewn on the floor. There’s no little girl curled in the bed.

The other room is four running strides away. I know now before I open the door all it has in it is a treadmill, ironing board, and single blue Rubbermaid tote. I kneel down and remove the cover, as I do almost every night I wake up like this. My dress uniform is on top, wrapped in plastic; a set of ACU's under that; some woodland camouflage and desert camouflage BDU's not good for much other than working in the yard, and underneath, a stack of oblong padded boxes. My medals: a Silver Star, two Bronze stars, four commendation, and several achievement medals, a United Nations Peacekeeping ribbon, a southwest Asia service ribbon, and at the bottom, a green, white, and red Kuwait Liberation Medal, with its palm and crossed swords, and three Purple Hearts.

I duck into the bathroom to splash water on my face. There are no toys in the tub. I check the hollows under my eyes in the mirror, then turn and look over my shoulder at my back. The blemishes, leftovers from a conflict the government had never properly acknowledged, take up most of the space between my shoulder blades.

K thinks it’s funny how I scratch patterns in my skin like some tribal custom. Toward the end of a previous relationship, my ex would turn away when I stepped out of the shower, my back criss-crossed red from where I’d raked with my nails as far as I could reach. The VA says they don’t know what it is. The papers and TV are calling it Gulf War syndrome - rashes, disturbed sleep, chest pains, dizzy spells, irritability, memory loss. Memory loss, right. I wish.

I go back to our bedroom, trying to slip in quietly. I can tell by K’s breathing she’s not asleep. She’s been waiting for me, and when my shoulder touches her warm back she whispers, “So, how are the children?”

“Honey, I’m sorry,” I say.

“So am I.” She pops the sheet and moves to the far edge of her side. The cover settles over her like a shroud.

I’m not going to be able to get back to sleep tonight. I go downstairs for a drink, and check the doors and windows... walking the perimeter again. I think about the tall, fair-skinned farm girl I married.

I remember her sitting in the kitchen with no makeup on the morning after I got back from the gulf. Near perfect, looking like a million bucks even with her hair unbrushed.

“The children are quiet this morning,” I said. “Did they start sleeping in while I was gone?”

She paused in mid-sip and studied me over the top rim of her coffee mug, an uncertain smile trembling on her lips. “The kids?” she repeated. “Honey...”

“Did your parents take them for my first night home? That was nice,” I said.

She set the mug down hard, slopping coffee over her wrist. “What is this?”

“I guess I was looking forward to them coming to meet me at the airport,” I said, adding quickly, “Not that I mind. Last night was quite a homecoming.”

K buried her face in her hands. “What is this?” she said. “We don’t have any children!”

I stopped, then, seeing her shoulders begin to shake. I reached across the table to her but she flinched away, so I dabbed at the spilt coffee with my balled-up napkin. “Honey, I’m sorry,” I finally said. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

She sniffled and blew her nose. “If it was supposed to be a joke, it was pretty sick,” she said, pushing her hair back and straightening up.

I closed my eyes against the light from the window, suddenly too bright. “I’m not feeling too well,” I said.

I wish I had known how to do right by K. Now and then I think I should have tried harder.

I couldn’t keep things straight after the first Gulf War. When my “jump ups” and night moves began, things started to fall apart. Imagine how you’d feel hearing your boyfriend go from room-to-room in the night, checking on non-existent children. I can only imagine what I put her through, pacing the floor of our old home where the hardwood boomed and rolled, and the creaking stairs kept record of my prowling.

Tonight I pad silently on carpet as I go downstairs for a drink. I stop with one hand on the refrigerator door; the front of the fridge is bare—no artwork, homework, class photos. No reason there should be. The kitchen tile clicks as one of the cats walks across the tile of our cookie-cutter home. It’s time to trim his claws again.
I’ve faced war, but I don’t look forward to grappling with that cat. But in the end I’ll do it. Fighting is a part of Army training.

In Individual Combat Training, they teach you everything is a weapon. Rifles and pistols aren’t much good when things are tight and confused. Then there’re bayonets, knives, rocks, branches and sticks, and the weapons you always have with you: feet, knees, elbows, bare hands, teeth.

Some nights, when I can’t sleep and the itching coils and burns on my back like a living thing, I would use my teeth to scratch if I could only reach. Do those sound like normal thoughts? I may have a disorder after all.

The VA won’t call it anything, because once they do they have to pay up. They just roll their eyes and mutter about how a collection of symptoms can’t be treated without knowing the cause. One of their experts wrote a little trifolder for Congress. It says the sleep disturbances, the rage, the skin rashes, and the social withdrawal of gulf vets are nothing new: Vietnam vets have them, as did those in Korea, World War II, even World War I. You look in Civil War or Revolutionary War diaries, you find something like it in there, too. I’ll buy that. I don’t care what they call it or who’s to blame - I just want someone to give me something for it. The fact is something happened to me that’s given me two lives: the life with K, and the life with these two children I keep looking for. If I can’t get both feet planted in one life or the other, the tension is going to split me right down the middle.

We have a wedding photo on the fireplace mantle that I concentrate on when I get confused — K’s wedding, her pale skin almost glowing against her white dress. There are no children in the picture. The only thing I don’t like about the picture is that the groomsmen, standing behind us, are a little blurred. The photographer could have done something to fix that--adjusted the shutter timing, depth of field, film speed, something. Especially seeing how fussy he was. I remember standing in the cool church sanctuary, smile frozen on like a permanent press as I waited for him to take the picture, already. I’ve known photographers who took better pictures in a lot worse conditions, in Kuwait.

This one magazine photographer hitched a ride with my team - right after the cease-fire. He was looking for a way, any way, to get into Kuwait or Iraq, looking for a story. What we ran into was a traffic jam.

For six miles, hundreds of Iraqi tanks, and armored cars were strafed, smashed, and burned beyond belief. Most were retreating on this two-lane road at night, fleeing north as their army collapsed. Then they were caught by our planes. Loot from Kuwait City littered the road. About a thousand soldiers left their trucks and tanks, ran off leaving criss-crossing trails of footprints in the talcum-like desert sand. They survived to surrender to coalition units.

Whatever or whoever remained on the highway died. Afterwards, I heard pilots chattering about finding great targets despite the night and low clouds. Missile launchers, trucks, tanks. We coordinated the flights of fighters by portable radio, stacking them up like airliners, and called down fire on these people for four hours straight. No one realized the actual damage until we reached the highway and called for the Navy Engineers Shore Party.

Shore Parties do construction - operating heavy equipment, putting up temporary buildings, carving runways out of the jungle. That day, the dump trucks and earth movers had been brought in for three purposes: to clear away destroyed vehicles, to repair the roadbed where bombs had damaged it, and to dig mass graves.

The engineers were pulling the bodies out of the wreckage, burying them to prevent disease, and recording the grave locations using NavStar so the remains could be recovered by the families and the Iraqi government. Since we couldn’t get anywhere until the highway was cleared, we helped.

The photographer went to work. “What a mess,” he said, checking his light meter against the desert. He fussed with the tangle of cameras and lenses slung around his neck, dabbing at them with a little brush. “Swear to god, I’ll never get all this sand out of here.”

There were so many dead they used bar-code strips to mark the body bags. The bags were green-black canvas and plastic, shapeless and slippery - it made the bodies hard to handle. We sealed the coins, cigarettes, books, toys, and letters we’d taken off the corpses in small packets, also bar-coded. It was tense work, messing with dead bodies, made worse by the unexploded bombs nearby.

Our planes had used cluster bombs on the convoy - fiberglass containers that broke up to spread hundreds of little bomblets over the target. Cute word, bomblets. Some exploded immediately, some were time-delayed, and some were motion-sensitive. They were still going off as we worked, like the last kernels in a popcorn bag. The photographer ignored our warnings and poked around, looking for a good shot, until the whir and pop of a bomblet disturbed two vultures. The birds flapped up and settled on top of a truck cab. He stuck closer to us after that.

The smell of dead bodies hung close to the ground in the still air, stronger in the deep craters and between the twisted, shattered vehicles. The First Sergeant passed out his stash of cigars to mask the smell, but they didn’t help much.

“I wish you’d stop moping around here,” the First Sergeant said to the photographer, offering a cigar. “Just take a couple of rolls and go back to your hotel.” He nudged a nearby body with his toe. It was curled up on its side, hands held close to its face like a baby’s. “Lookee here. This’d look good in a family magazine.”

“Bodies, bodies, bodies.” The photographer dismissed it with a wave. “What I really need is a blown-out tank, something people will recognize the general shape of but still be able to see it’s been blown to hell. Something worth a Time or Newsweek cover.”

We worked in silence a while, keeping our mouths shut to save energy in the heat and keep out the smell. As we rounded a gradual curve in the road, the photographer shaded his eyes and said, “What’s that?”

We thought he was pointing at two burnt-out tanks that flanked the road, their muzzles pointing skyward like charred fingers. Beyond them, a bent figure in white caught our eye, a smaller brown shape following him. As he shuffled through the shimmering heat, the figure solidified into an old man in a white robe. A greyhound-looking dog trotted close on his heels. As we watched, the man stopped, leaned over a dead soldier, and spat. The dog yipped and trotted forward, tail wagging, to the next corpse.

The photographer watched as the old man worked his brown lips behind his white beard, summoning up spit to waste in this desert. “Oh my,” he whispered, “A man and his little dog have just made me very happy. And rich.” Cradling his cameras against his chest, he trotted toward the old man.

I half-hoped the man would have a taboo or something against cameras, but we were into another big project. Beside the road sat the wreck of a truck, a black eagle and three green stars painted on the door - Saddam’s elite Republican Guard force. In and around the truck lay eleven bodies. One was wedged, upside down, inside the engine compartment. Nine more were tangled in the bed of the truck, legs and arms sticking through the side slats. Their hair and clothes were burned off, skin incinerated by heat so intense it melted the windshield onto the dashboard. One corpse lay on its back a short distance away.

We were just finishing up the last body when the photographer returned, shepherding the old man and his dog before him.

“As salaam aleikum,” the old man quavered, gently taking each of our hands in turn as the photographer snapped away. Peace be upon you.

“Wa aleikum salaam,” a couple of us replied. And peace be unto you.

The photographer nearly backed into the twisted remains of the truck trying to frame a shot of us and the old man. He turned and looked at it like a prospective buyer, then his face lit up. “Beautiful! The Highway of Death!” he said, like it was a movie title. His autowinder whirred and chuckled as he filled another roll of film.

My senses were so dulled by lack of sleep and the morning’s work that the sound of the camera blended with the chopping beat of an approaching helicopter. The old man and his dog watched it set down on a cleared section of the highway, eyes gleaming with excitement.

An Air Force major hopped out the side door, his flight suit crisp, looking odd to us as we stood there in our baggy DCU's, none too clean. He made straight for the truck and circled it, pausing to finger the ragged edges of a hole where shrapnel had shredded the tailgate.

We snapped to attention before saluting like we were taught to do back in basic any time an officer appeared. As the helicopter blades slowed and the engine shut down, we could hear the major more clearly. He was talking loud and not making much sense.

“It’s my truck,” he said. “This is my truck! Used an optical-guided bomb, thousand-pounder.” He smiled a little and shook his head. “Swear to god it hit the truck driver in the ear.”

The photographer snapped portraits of the pilot. “So you’re one of the architects of the Highway of Death,” he said.

The major’s face tightened. “Now, I don’t see that you should be calling it that,” he said as the photographer shot on. “It wouldn’t look good in print.”

“Yeah, major, but look around you.”

The pilot looked around at the field of charred, smoking remains. “Hell,” he said, “I’ve seen worse back home around Miami.”

He noticed us where we were still standing, watching him. “Hey, Army, am I right?”

He hadn’t spent his morning the same way we had or he wouldn’t have asked. We said nothing, but he could see the answer in our faces and on our hands, coated up to the elbows in soot and gore.

“You men carry on. Go on about your business,” he said finally.

The last body from the major’s truck resembled a man-shaped mound of rich black dirt. The flesh and the tunic were fused together. Arms outstretched, helmet and rifle just out of reach of the curled fingers. Oddly, the face was untouched by fire, eyes closed and forehead wrinkled as though in concentration, prayer maybe.

The pilot, the photographer and the old man and his dog stood watching as we worked gingerly with the crumbly remains. The First Sergeant looked up at the photographer. “Want to get a picture of this one?”

“Naw,” he said. “These people have been burned so black that you have to open the lens two extra stops to get any detail at all, and then the background washes out too bright.”

“You know,” the pilot said, looking from the body to the truck, “I think this was the guy standing on top of the cab my last pass. The other guys were trying to get out of the truck, scrambling like ants when you kick over a nest, but this guy was shooting at me. No way he could lead me enough to hit me, hardly time to see me, but I remember seeing his face light up from the muzzle flash when he fired. Saw his face on the bomb camera.” He stood there a minute, gouging the powdery sand with his boot. “Damnedest thing I ever saw,” he said finally. He started to reach for the rifle and helmet, then stopped.

“These been checked for booby traps?”

“No, sir,” the First Sergeant said. I think he winked at us, but it could have been the smoke from his cigar tearing up his eye. These soldiers had the hell bombed out of them in the darkest night, they were just trying to get away from anything that would draw fire - they didn’t have time to think about rigging traps.

“We haven’t been checking for booby traps, sir,” the First Sergeant said.

“Well, don’t you think you should? Isn’t that one of your jobs?”

The First Sergeant didn’t answer, just cut me a look that said it was my job - rank has its privileges. Booby traps aside, I was pretty careful with the helmet, who knows but by some freak odds it could have landed on top of a bomblet or something.

I was lucky, nothing but a small photograph and a scrap of paper. I passed the helmet to the major. He fingered the raised eagle on the front as we watched.

“Be a nice souvenir, sir,” the First Sergeant said. “That and this rifle would look real good over somebody’s desk.”

The major looked sharply at the First Sergeant, but he kept his face blank and tapped some ash from his cigar. Removing captured weaponry from a secured area for purposes other than research or training constitutes looting under the Hague Conventions, Chapter 1, Article 28. We had to memorize that one before the ground war started.

The major turned to the rest of us, but we got real interested in getting this last body put away. I turned the photo and paper over in my hands while someone fetched a pouch. The paper was a letter in Arabic script, elegant curves and swoops, unreadable but nice to look at. The photo was of a man, the soldier I decided as I checked his face against the picture, and his family.

The background of the photo was blurred, but it looked like he was kneeling in front of a riverside park, with boats drawn up on shore. He held a husky young boy in front of him on one knee, maybe about three years old. An older child, a girl, maybe seven, slim, leaned against his other shoulder and looked out of the picture with dark, serious eyes. The soldier and the two children were dressed in white. He had his sleeves rolled up and his collar open, relaxed, on leave maybe. A woman in turtleneck and slacks, olive-skinned and full-bodied, with a black abaya shawl draped over her arm, stood behind the father and two children. She had the raised eyebrows and fixed smile that’s universal body language for “take the picture, already.”

The father’s clearly happy keeping an arm tightly around each of his children, and they are happy being held. Our cultural briefings before the war told us Arabs value sons more than daughters; you couldn’t tell that from the picture.

Most women in Iraq don’t wear the conservative black abaya veils, but the woman in the picture, probably Shiite, must have taken hers off just for the photo; one fine dark hand gripped the fabric tightly, ready to draw it back on as a shield against the public eye. I felt like an intruder, a voyeur. They were a family in their element, frozen by the photographer on an outing on a sunny afternoon, and things would never be the same for them again.

The old man in his white robe looked at the picture, then leaned farther over, his hand on my shoulder, to spit on the soldier’s face.

“Hey!” I shoved him away, clutching the picture tightly in my hand as I stood and faced him.

The old man shouted a string of shrill words none of us understood. His dog crouched and growled low in his throat. The major looked at me, then the rank on my sleeve. “Let the man go on about his business, Sergeant First Class. It’s his country, after all.”

“He’s done with this one, anyway,” I said, crouching to draw the body bag closed. I guided the zipper shut over the soldier’s face and smoothed a bar-coded label across the top. The photo and letter slipped into the small pouch without effort. His bones must had been made brittle by fire - when I clipped the thin package to the body bag I felt his ribs give, like dry sticks as they settled under the pressure of my hand.

“Now, Sergeant First Class,” the officer said, clearing his throat, “if you find more rifles I trust that you’ll save them for my unit.” He paused, then added, “For training purposes.”

Article 91 prohibits disobedience to a lawful order. Article 93 prohibits disrespect to a senior officer. That’s the Uniform Code of Military Justice, instilled in us from day one of basic training.

I saluted. “Yes, sir.”

He stared at me, trying to decide if I’m tweaking him or not, but finally returned the salute and started for the helicopter. He gave me a last look over his shoulder. I still hadn’t moved from beside the body. “Carry on, soldier.”

“I ain’t a soldier,” I muttered as the helicopter lifted over a cyclone of dust. “I’m a future ex-soldier.”

“Ain’t no such thing as an ex-soldier,” the first sergeant said. “Look, your cigar’s gone out.”

The photographer tried for a shot of the hovering helo, but the sand whipped over him and he turned away, shielding his cameras with his arms and body. “Swear to god,” he said, “I’ll never get all this out of here.”

I know how he feels. I’ll never get all this out, either. Anger, confusion, respect for an enemy who would rather fight a jet aircraft than hide, his family’s loss, his fatherless children.

It’s like a blemish or a scar on a piece of wood. There’s no quick and easy way to take the scar out and make it like it was never there. No easy way, and no reason to expect there is. You can just work at it a little every day with sandpaper, removing the top layer little by little until finally there is just a hint of it, and if someone looks at it who had never seen the blemish they would think that there is nothing. That is the only thing for it.

Besides that, there is nothing you can take for it. Tranquilizers, maybe. The VA doctor offered to prescribe some to help me sleep, but cautioned me that it would just mask the symptoms, and could cause some mental confusion. Figure that’s the last thing I need.

Along with the night visitors, that soldier’s family is an image I see again and again; I’m not sure what they mean, but I cannot stop seeing them. I still dream about him out on that road. The look on his face. Eyes closed, concentrating, at peace. I’ll never get him out of my mind, just like I thought I’d never get the smell of burnt bodies out of my nose, mouth, and hair. The experts say you can’t remember a smell--the same ones that say there is no color or sound in dreams.

I check the doors and windows and lie down on the sofa where I can see the door. When the sky lightens, maybe I can sleep for an hour or two. In the meantime I stare at the popcorn ceiling, with dimples and hills like a map of another country, another world, and think.

If it hadn’t been for that day out in the desert, would I be sleeping better?

I’ll never know. It might have been better or worse, all I can be sure of is that it would have been different.

Sometime I’d wake up to the dawn light, and not think of scratching my unblemished back. Somewhere the soldier would sit sipping sweet tea in the market souk with his war veteran friends. He refills his glass from a simple copper pot and tells his one war story about living through a midnight daredevil drive out of Kuwait that beats the others’ all to hell.

On another night, I’d wake up to a child’s cry. I whisper to my wife beside me, and she rolls over sleepily and asks me to give our son a glass of water.

In another place he would lift his daughter into a boat from the bank of the river as his young son brandishes a dry reed like a sword, while his wife in her flowing black robe looks down and laughs, her dark eyes shining over her veil.

On a sunny afternoon, I’d sink to my knees on wet green grass, exhausted from chasing my soccer-playing daughter, only to be tackled by my boy, half her height but her equal in energy.

In some of those places he lives, and in some I truly live. In those worlds I am at peace.

1 comment:

  1. This story takes my breath away. Feels like I've been hit. I wish I had words for you. I wish you peace. And a hug. T