19 January 2009
Kimberly J. Soenen: Dive and Dismantle
At my part-time job, fur clad cosmetically-enhanced people often approach me and make unique, and always urgent, requests.
"Can you tell me where I might find a sterling silver flask? I'm looking for a Canadian Goose Down coat for my daughter. Where might I find that automatic espresso machine that makes the coffee without you having to do anything? Does the spa downstairs do brows and waxing? How tall is the Christmas tree? Where can I get a good shoe shine? I'm looking for Wii. I'm looking for Nintendo. I'm looking for one of those foot massagers? I need the 2.5 ounce Rain Rose hand crème. Do you know if that French store still carries that hand crème in that size? I need to get lingerie for my girlfriend and she loves leather, do you know if The Secret on Michigan Avenue carries leather? My niece is getting married at Holy Name in three hours and she needs a white umbrella."
The requests come quickly and often. Always extremely urgent and very important.
But one request made on the evening before Christmas Eve was different. ...
"I'm looking for a black Santa hat," he said calmly, steadily. "It needs to have a white trim and a white ball on top but the hat needs to be black," he said.
As I picked up the phone to search the city for a black Santa hat I recommended that he buy some fabric and make the hat.
"I'm not very good with my hands," he smiled.
He told me he'd been looking for a black Santa hat since 2003. He stepped away from the concierge desk while I manned the phone.
"If I'm going to spend Christmas alone again, I might as well have a black hat."
He was wiry and strong like a Midwestern farmer whose strength betrays his weight. He had the build of a triathlete, a Nordic skier. The type of body that indicates efficiency, strength and speed at once. His grey neoprene shirt hung closely on his chest. His left hand ring finger had a tattoo encircling the top half of his finger. The tattoo was interrupted on the underside of his hand to save from cutting a vein or damaging nerves I guessed. Other than that one work of art he didn't wear any jewelry.
I immediately called the White House / Black Market store and they said they didn't' carry one. Nor did Bloomingdale's Sax, Neiman's or Walgreen's. I made a few more calls and was unable to locate the hat.
I asked where he was from and engaged him in conversation to buy time to hunt for the request. We talked. He stepped away from the desk to patiently pace and wait and I noticed that his boots were combat black with lace ups and thick heels. Military issue.
He leaned patiently on the desk when he returned to it. He had time, it appeared, unlike the harried holiday shoppers looking for the perfect Chloe doll, or the Artisan perfume or the Juicy Couture sweat pants.
We talked and laughed.
Said he was away from his home in San Diego on special assignment in Chicago until the second week of January with the Navy. His baseball hat had the skull with cross bones on it and on the back of the hat had the "fallen brothers" navy symbol with a wreath around a bomb, the kind of bomb you might see in a Hanna Barbara cartoon-black with a fuse. He had strong working hands.
He asked me to go for a drink. We had dinner together. He was missing Christmas at home for the fourth year consecutive. Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Chicago. War zones. I deduced that he was in Chicago to protect the president elect. He didn't deny it.
By the second Jack and coke it came out that he was in Chicago diving and dismantling. He was part of the enlisted men who work for the Navy EOD. Explosive Ordnance Division.
Known as the world's premier combat force for countering Improvised Explosive Devices or "IEDs," Weapons of Mass Destruction and all other types of weaponry, these are the guys who operate around the world, and take apart bombs. They are enlisted men. They drop in from 30,000 feet and dive up to to 300 feet to ensure things don't blow up-or, in some cases, he explained, blow the bombs up before they blow up near to lots of people. He went on to explain to me how I might equalize pressure while scuba diving to prevent my ears from hurting. He also told me what it is like to go into a "denied area" before Special Ops or conventional war units to take Improvised Explosive Devices apart.
"We've lost lots of techs in Iraq," he said. "I've lost a lot of friends." He added "We're tired."
Over mediocre seafood potstickers we talked about Afghanistan, Halliburton, The Green Zone, The Shock Doctrine, The Surge, The Withdrawl, Saudia Arabia and what it means to be a Christian vs.a Muslim. Somehow we managed to laugh together between talk of the economic bailout and current military morale.
By the third jack and coke he told me he missed his wife and kids in San Diego. By the fourth he told me that the problem with the war is that, for example, when the Dive and Dismantle team defuses an IED, they are required to call it into their superiors and report the source of the bomb if clear. During this war, he said, like no other in his 17 years of service has he received the answer: Stop.
I didn't understand.
"When you know where the source of the bomb is," his eyes narrowed and he locked in on my eyes to see if I was following him, "You are supposed to take them out. We are trained to take them out. In this war, we've been repeatedly ordered to not to take them out despite knowing where and who the source is."
He finished his drink and ordered another.
He steered ahead. I couldn't discern if he was going to cry or laugh. It was both at once. He leaned to kiss me. But I knew he really wanted to kiss his wife.
I told him that years ago my friend wrote a piece for the online magazine Salon about a madame in the beltway. When she asked the madame if she services more Democrats or Republicans the madame revealed that the boys on The Hill are all equally lonely-often, she said, she just watches a movie and eats pizza with her clients in the hotel room. The men are quite simply craving normalcy, and touch.
I looked up from my rattling ice and now my soldier was crying. He threw down money to pay the bill, excused himself to have a cigarette outside. Marlboro Reds for the sailor, of course. I followed him out.
"I got the idea for the black hat in Iraq four years ago at Christmas," he explained. "I've never been able to find one." "I thought about making one, but I'm not very good with my hands," he repeated and laughed like Christopher Walkins did during the famed Russian roulette scene from The Deerhunter.
"I re-enlisted on December 12," he blurted out. "Maybe we should celebrate with another drink," he laughed half-heartedly. "December 12, 2008 until December 12, 2012," he said. "Don't you know?" He shifted gears. "The Maya date civilization back to 3114 b.c. That's the beginning of the Mayan calendar. The date is also the beginning of the Fifth Great Cycle," he went on enthusiastically. "The Mayans believed that there are Five Great Cycles of the Earth and that the beginning of civilization was the beginning of the fifth one. 2012 is the year the 5th Great Cycle is supposed to end. All five Great Cycles are supposed to end in destruction on 12/12/12. The End of Days, they say."
"I'm off to Iran after Chicago in early-January," he said with less zeal. "Come back to my place tonight" he said swaying a bit now and exhaling smoke at once. He forced a smile with his chin lowering into his chest and his eyes looking up to mine knowingly acknowledging that he knew I wouldn't be with him. The smile was one part tomcat and one part surrender and sadness.
We walked for a while together. We walked without talking as the icy winter rain came down harder. He took my hand and I let him. People scurried about us in an effort to dodge the rain but we continued to walk.
Eventually I caught a taxi.
Only when I arrived home and took my coat and hat off did I realize that I was entirely soaked through. We must have been walking together a long time.
Art credit: Mary J. Bigelow, Good Morning, glue and paint on canvas, 5 in. x 5 in.