(Part two of my first embed)

September 27, 2008

This section technically comes after the section from a few weeks back about getting “shot” point blank.  Context: it’s about the thrillride of getting from Fort Irwin itself out to a remote FOB (forward-operating base) in the desert.  (The Mojave desert.) So:


Though, in terms of my personal safety being threatened, the trip out to the FOB was probably a lot more risky than being faux-shot a point-blank range.  This is because of Major Lowe’s driving habits, which amount to two key things: 1) the amount of time the Maj. spends in his humvee, and 2) the need to hurry on account of driving around in a 70mph dust storm in a vehicle with no roof or doors, just a tiny windshield that looks like someone found it covered in grime in an alley and decided to weld it onto the humvee to give it a “convertible” kind of aesthetic and as reassurance that the small-to-medium-sized rocks and other debris that Major Lowe’s driving kicks up won’t hit you directly in the face.


Major Lowe is only a few inches taller than I am but seems tall because of the uniform—something I’ll revisit later with some privates I hang out with in what I call the “badass effect”—and is, in a word, awesome.  Most of this awesomeness is just a winning  combination of charm, sincerity, thoughtfulness, and the inability to have time for any nonsense that endears most of my friends to him and makes it a huge letdown later when a public affairs flack starts driving myself and others around, slowly, in a minivan.  Another reason Major Lowe is so endearing to us is that he drives exactly like everyone in Los Angeles wishes they could drive, which is to say that he drives as fast as possible with seemingly no regard to anything that might be an obstacle or whether or not he’s even on the road.  Granted, at most places in the NTC the definition of “road” is at best very loose, but what’s also quickly apparent is that the stretch of desert Major Lowe drives me through as I hold on both to the humvee and my Vietnam-era helmet and try to block the blowing sand and pebbles from my face is that the desert—this part of desert—is far from flat.  And by “not flat” I don’t mean to suggest gently rolling hills; the idea you should have in mind is something more like a 1,200 square-mile motocross track with occasional expanses of vast flatness and here or there a mountain or two. 


So driving with Major Lowe turns out to me the most adrenaline-filled part of my entire time out at the NTC, partly because humvees really can get airborne and partly because, when you spot a 6-foot high hillock in the distance and Major Lowe points to it and says “Hold on,” you know that he’s not going to even try finding a way around the hillock and that you’re going to get all of the roller-coaster action you always avoided in your life.  (I think now, after driving with Major Lowe, my fear of roller coasters has pretty much totally abated, but so would the potential thrill, because when you’re at Six Flags there’s far less chance you’ll fall out of whatever you’ve been strapped into or hit in the face by a flying rock or, no joking, high-speed tumbleweed.)


If John is in charge of base operations, Major Lowe, who does double-duty as both field Public Affairs and as an O/C, is closer to what I expected (and what I’ll get) when we haul ass out to FOB Dallas, fast enough that we don’t have to spend forever in the dust storm but not so fast that the speed just makes things all that much worse, because the storm is a cross-wind to the direction we’re headed so the right side of my face is feeling sanded-down and my main first experience of being embedded as media in “Afghanistan” is making myself as small as possible except for when a dirt mound we hit lifts me a few inches out of my seat and thinking “Ow, ow, ow.”


I had come carefully prepared for the trip and even did some last-minute shopping that proved to be invaluable (an ill-fitting yet durable pair of boots and a digital audio recorder) but I was totally unprepared for the dust storm.  When I had made the turnoff after passing through Barstow things were a little windy but otherwise calm; soldiers of various ranks will make two jokes during my visit here, one of which is that they must’ve imported Afghan weather to go with the training.  (The other joke is being told by nearly every guy I meet that he had been hoping I was a “hot chick.”  It took me a little while to realize that this wasn’t just a witticism, though, when more than a few times soldiers would ask me if I knew if any hot chicks were coming out into the box and where they could be found.  And I’ll expand on this tangent at a more relevant point but, weirdly, there seem to be only three terms used to describe women when no actual women are around: chick, hot chick, and wife.)


 And, it turned out, there were a whole lot of other things I was unprepared for: one of these was knowing how to recognize rank, which becomes important when you’re meeting several hundred people who look, dress, and talk in a very similar way until you get to know them, but I’d caught this (sort of) by having John draw me a last-minute legal-pad rank insignia cheat sheet.  The main thing I was unprepared for was more general: what, exactly, was I supposed to do?  And it may seem that this question would have been answered in great detail by someone already, actually I was the first person to sign up for this and the third or fourth to actually go out into the box as a “reporter” so the whole thing was still very fly-by-the-seat-of-your-dusty-pants and, even though I was still expecting some sort of direction from Major Lowe even after we pulled up just outside the perimeter of the FOB and he showed me the way in, no further enlightenment about my actual duty here is forthcoming, and after Major Lowe introduces me to a similar looking guys outside of what I’ll soon learn is the local nerve center for the FOB and heads out, telling me to call him on my cell phone when I want to be extracted (his term), I stand there looking at the soldiers look at me and think about how all this seemed so clear on paper, and how I always and without fail fall into that particular trap.


(Also, I quickly realize that my cell phone is not going to work out in the middle of the desert unless I climb the steep hill behind the FOB, in which case I could be mistaken for a sniper.)


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