Blast From the Past
The shower trailers on FOB Ramrod are small, cramped, and typically filthy. Or at least they were the last time my platoon and I were tasked with serving as the Battalion QRF during our most recent battalion mission. I stood in the shower with my head hanging low and eyes closed. The flowing lukewarm water soothed my skin as I felt it splash upon my shaven scalp. Drops rolled down my forehead, off my nose and splattered on the plastic floor. I stood alone and relaxed, pondering the luxury of hygiene. God this feels amazing…it was a wonderful end to a rather busy day.
My meditation broke with the sound of the wooden door slamming the trailer frame. At this hour, there was no question in my mind what was coming.
“Hey LT!” Shouted SGT Lays from the entrance, “We’re gettin’ spun up! Big XO needs you in the TOC!”
“Ah fuck!” I cried, banging my fist on the wall…“Aright, I’m moving!”
“This better be good,” I mumbled to myself as I turned off the water, jumped out of the shower, threw on my clothes and ran out the trailer. My shirt, skin, and scalp were soaking wet and the outside temperature was hovering at 35 degrees. I tried running faster to get out of the cold, but the wind chill froze my airways making it near impossible to breathe. I imagined the agony I’d soon feel rolling down Highway One in a Stryker with this glacial air beating my face.
“Hey Sir,” my PSG called to me as I entered the tent, “XO says we got some guys digging at that village about 4 to 5 clicks north east of here. Looks like a potential IED site.” The Sergeant First Class had to yell over the sound of me hopping all over our plywood floor trying to shove my legs into my ACU pants. “He’s about to get a fire mission approved and we gotta go get BDA.”
“Aright, no problem. Get the boys spun up. I’ll be in the TOC. I’ll give the brief over the net and we’ll roll as soon as we’re done with the fire mission.”
“Sounds good, Sir.”
I threw on my body armor and kevlar like a child with a book bag on his first day of school: still not quite sure how to use the heavy load, but just follows all the big kids. I slung my rifle across my chest and jogged towards the Battalion TOC.
“Hey Rajiv, good to see you here,” greeted the XO as I stumbled through the TOC entrance. “Check this out,” he pulled up a screen shot of a live video feed showing us two men digging. “They’ve been there for at least an hour. I’m fucking convinced these are bad dudes, I’m about to call for fire, approval is on its way. Just write down that grid and get ready to get your guys out there to get BDA.”
“Roger that, Sir.” I checked out the graphics to get the coordinates for the dig site. I kept the big screen shot of the men in my peripheral vision as I plotted the grid on my map board. Holy shit…something came over me. A recollection…a blast from the past that yielded a gut instinct so strong, I couldn’t keep quiet. “Sir,” I turned to the XO who was in a trance waiting to kill those men, “how long would you say they’ve been out there?”
“Probably about two hours or so,” he replied dryly, still focused on his target.
“Sir…I think you should cancel that fire mission.” I announced. “I think those guys are innocent.” The XO turned his head and looked at me with an accusatory stare. I looked back on the map board to confirm what I had seen. I marked it with a purple alcohol pen. The XO nodded dismissively and continued staring at his screen. “Sir, seriously…” I continued, “…I think this is a bad call.”
“Dude, Rajiv,” cried the Major, “This is picture perfect for us. They’re clearly digging an IED. I don’t understand. I mean, got it, they could be innocent, but this is like some obvious stuff. What on earth are you thinking?”
My eyes faded into the fluorescent lighting. I drifted from that scene to a seemingly inconsequential moment just a few years ago…
I always thought April 1, 2007 would be the wildest night of my life. For most college kids, their 21st birthday is a night with no other purpose than to flirt with vice. Binge drinking, beautiful women, trendy bars…or at least I thought that’s how it would go down. But when that magic day came about, I was nowhere near my friends or nightlife. Rather, I found myself lounging peacefully in my Thatha’s apartment in the Kottom Backham district of Chennai, India.
Thatha’s flat, though small by American standards, was generously sized for an Indian apartment. Despite the space, my grandparents stuck to their traditional ways of life. Thatha always wore a simple doti with a towel over his shoulder. He slept on the floor, having only one bed in the house for his visiting grandchildren. He had little to no furniture otherwise. We sat on the cool marble floor of his living room, the lights off, trying our best to escape the heat. A shaking ceiling fan squeaked above our heads as an overtone to the bustling street noises outside. Not being used to the heat, my face was moist with perspiration. Sweat beads rolled down my forehead, off my nose and splattered on the floor…
My aunts and uncles would serve as translators for my Thatha and me. I only speak Hindi, but my Thatha spoke Tamil and Telegu along with some rudimentary English. Then again, Thatha didn’t speak much at all. He may have been a quiet man, but his authority was firm. He was a disciplinarian and devout man of faith. The family seemed to follow his orders like soldiers obeying their commander on the battlefield. The default expression on Thatha’s face was a scowl that terrified me as a child before I really knew him. As I grew older, that scowl shifted to a warm smile. One thing about the Srinivasan men, we may be strong at heart, but we cry like babies at the sight of our offspring. Thatha would tear up each time we embraced after a long separation. My father usually does the same. And already being a sucker for random Afghan children, I’m sure I’ll be a weeper when I get my own one day.
I sat on the floor relaxed with my left leg bent inwards on my chest and my right kicked out towards the door. Thatha laid on his side, facing me, resting his head in the palm of his hand. It was a moment of pure peace in the midst of a chaotic country.
“So you are 21 years old!” began my Thatha, recognizing my age but still talking to me like I was seven.
“Yeah, it feels pretty good.”
“Where is your punal?!” Thatha asked, pointing to his thread which ran diagonally across his chest over his right shoulder. The punal is donned via a robust ceremony upon Brahmachari, or young boys who are in the transition to manhood. I received mine when I was fifteen years old. It symbolizes the undertaking of the religious and family duties that come as the leader of a Hindu household.
“Hmm, I guess it came off. It’s kind of hard to keep that on with all our military training.”
“Bah!” Thatha chided, “I will make you a new one.” He opened up his personal cupboard and rolled out some sandalwood powder and thread. That cupboard doubled as a database for every subtle benchmark in Thatha’s life. One quick glance would find hundreds of report cards, letters, pictures, and mementos collected over seven decades. I know every letter I ever wrote Thatha would be resting in there somewhere. As he began to pull out the thread, I noticed a black and white picture taped to the left door. The eyes gave him away.
“Thatha, is that you!?” I laughed, pointing to the young villager in the photo.
“Yes, I was young then. Life in the fields makes you strong and young!” We both sat down in our respective positions. Thatha began tying the thread in deliberate knots to spin my punal.
“Well, what kind of stuff did you have to do in the fields? You were farming?”
“Well, it was a village. We all farmed and worked hard. We’d dig crops in the early morning until it got hot. Then, we’d come inside for water and take some rest. We’d go back out in the afternoon to work. I was not a smart man like you and your father, so I did not study in my spare time.”
I smiled at his modesty, “So when did you stop working? When did your day end?”
“Work never really stopped. See, once it became dark and the farming was done, we came back inside for dinner. But we usually needed to go back out again later at night.”
“Why’s that? You’ve already worked all day.”
“Water! There is no water for the next day! We needed to work on the irrigation!”
“Well, why didn’t you just do that early in the morning? I mean, when do you sleep?”
“We slept when we could, a few hours here and there. But you have to work on the irrigation ditches late at night because, during the day, there is water running through them. You can’t work on the irrigation when other villagers are trying to farm.”
“So you’d stay up most of the night?”
“Sometimes, but the worst is the cold. India may be very hot during the day, but it can get freezing out there at night!”
“Man…” I interlocked my fingers and rested my hands upon my head, “so during the day you farmed, during the night you fixed irrigation ditches. So did you have any time to play and have fun?”
Thatha leaned forward, avoiding the question. He said a silent prayer, stretching my new punal across his fingers. “Put this on,” he ordered. I took off my shirt as Thatha threw the sacred threads over my shoulder. “Now you are Brahmachari again.”
“Thanks, Thatha.” I saw the smile in his face when he leaned back. I suppose in a simpler time as Thatha’s, the real joys in life didn’t come from the same superficial stimuli that entertain me today. There was a wholesomeness to his smile that appealed to my soldier mentality. Here was a man who lived his life in labor. He worked hard with little rest, just like a soldier does. Thatha found true happiness simply enjoying the company of the people around him, no matter the circumstances that brought them together. Thatha is so cool I chuckled to myself.
“You work hard too, Rajiv,” said Thatha, “you just work in a different way. You are still a growing and smart man. You will be so successful. Only make sure you appreciate the work of your parents.”
“Of course, how could I not.” I smiled, leaned back against the wall, and continued to soak in the life lessons bestowed upon me by this family patriarch. I hoped I’d make him proud one day…
The XO’s voice was frustrated. Our blood pumped hot and fast, my uniform already soaked with sweat. He wanted these men dead, and I can’t say I didn’t want blood myself for the losses our unit had already taken, but a re-emerging memory would not let me stand down.
“See, Sir,” I pointed to the purple mark I made on the map, “that grid sits right on an irrigation ditch.”
“But it’s like 2200 at night! And it’s freezing cold outside! Why the fuck are they out there digging?!”
“Sir, you can’t work on an irrigation ditch during the day when people are using the water to farm,” I regurgitated Thatha’s explanation, “it has to be done at night, even when it’s freezing outside. I think those men are innocent.”
The XO paused for a second and looked back towards the screen, perhaps seeing them in a different light. I’m not sure what went through his head just then, but the frustration in his voice became more fervent with every second that passed by.
“Fuck…” the fate of these two men rested in the hands of this man. I had made my case. There was nothing I could do but pray for the best. I held my rifle close to my chest.
“Hey Rajiv,” said the XO breaking the silence, “tell your guys to stand down for now…but pay attention to the net. If this shit goes down, you need to be ready to go!”
“Roger that, Sir. We’ll be ready.” I started to walk out the tent towards the Company CP to get on the radio with my soldiers. There are few things more frustrating than rushing soldiers into a mission and then canceling it at the last minute. But I can’t say I didn’t feel a certain skip in my step on the way out.
“Hey Raj,” I turned around, the XO called my name with his eyes still fixated on the screen, “Good job.”
“Thanks, Sir.” Deep down, I didn’t really need his approval, but it was nice to have. My hands started to freeze as I walked back into the cold. Rather than put on gloves, I just shoved my fingers underneath my body armor to warm them against my chest. I squeezed my uniform tightly to feel its wetness.
“Uh oh,” I thought, “Crap, I’m not wearing my punal!” The irony of not wearing my punal on the one day I might actually be deserving of it humored me. I looked up at the sky affectionately. Thatha had only passed on a couple months earlier, but his memory was still near to me…”man, you never fail to catch me,” I chuckled. The cold night air didn’t seem so frigid any more.