January 7, 2021
A Military Contractor Watches the Riots from the Middle East
I’ve spent most of my life so far “over there,” far from home, in lands not of my birth. So many stories I’ve heard, from so many tellers. The night watchman of my apartment building in Pyongtaek, remembering when Seoul was craters and matchsticks, and how he learned his first English words on a Marine colonel’s knee.
The driver who ferried me across the Spree to Museum Island in Berlin so I could see what was left of Schliemann’s gold at the Neues Museum, his few artifacts from Troy not seized by the Russians. Over there, said the driver, just there, we kids, we played King of the Mountain on piles of bricks, rubble left from the war. How you could smell the dead bodies still trapped under the burnt-out old mounds. Sweetish the stink, yet sour.
I know the smell. Like chicken wrappings left out in the garbage too long. When the wind turned that day in the desert near Khost, the gloved fingers of the morgue detail stirred up the stench as they combed the swaying grass for the last bits of the Taliban who’d blown himself up there earlier that day, the bloody mist of him settling on the weeds in a drainage ditch. Nothing left of him but clots and rot. And I stood by and watched.
Anyone who lives far away for long enough develops a picture of what got left behind. A snapshot of home to keep close to hand, an icon to guide the way, to make the wanderer remember what all this is for, all this long time gone, all this lonely, all this missing, the hoarding up of money and of dreaming. Of the days long gone, and the sweet, sweet days to come, when the sojourner finally buys that one-way ticket, laden with savings and the best of intentions.
Home—to our America, our homespun, dreamland world, our sweet if only, our just wait till then, nostalgia like whiffs of sweet cotton candy, our when this is finally over. But what do we see when we log on today, searching for our lovers, our mothers and fathers, our babies, our pets? Pictures of our ever after, thick with smoke and gas, and broken glass. And there—in the very heart of home—grim janitors gloved like our own Afghan morgue detail, their slow back and forth back and forth with mops and suds, doing their best to clean up the zealots’ mess.
RELEVANT COVER LETTER: “Dear Editors,