North By Northwestern: A sweaty memoir of companionship
Sweat runs down my back, seeping through my uniform. Sitting on a heated tank, I imagine myself as a pork belly fried on a pan. The smoke from my dry cigarette draws the moisture out of my mouth. The sun has never been such an enemy.
Taking off my work-gloves, I ask my friend, “Hey, do you have any water left?”
“Nah, man. I ran out this morning. I know a place to get some though,” he replies.
Private First Class Jeremy Martinez slowly leaps off the Humvee with a canteen in his hand, strolling towards the water tank. Streams of water hit the top of the canteen, half-splashing on his hands and the other half gently sliding down the wall.
At the Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, there are two absolute laws governing the minds of soldiers engaging in field training exercises. One, it’s going to be boiling hot, and you can’t do anything about it. Two, it’s still going to be boiling hot, and you’re absolutely powerless. The only thing that may comfort a soldier in this extreme weather is a battle buddy feeling the same way. Endlessly screaming “fuck,” soldiers share their complaints while spitting from their dry mouths onto the dusty sand. Martinez and I have different guard shifts, but we share at least 30 minutes a day together, smoking, joking and listening to music. We pay attention to our ongoing conversation, even though one ear is fixed to a radio mounted in the military vehicle. Distant roars of M1A2 Abram tanks constantly shift us back to reality when we are about to enter the dream world. All of sudden, a few English words from Martinez draw my attention.
“Ko, what kind of MRE do you want?” Martinez asks. (Meal, Ready to Eat: instant meal for soldiers during war and training.)
“Anything except vegetarian ones,” I reply.
“How about Mexican-style chicken stew?” he says.
Sure, that’s fine. It is, in a sense, a guilty pleasure to have someone suffering with me. It is not the most pleasant time of the year to sit in the sun and sweat my brain out, but if there is a friend going through the same thing, things can be better. Even the command post, “barricaded” with cheaply assembled tents attached to an armored vehicle, feels like a slow-cooker. Wherever you situate yourself in this area, comfort cannot be guaranteed. We smell horrible – oh, I know for sure. Our patrol caps gather a thin layer of black stain from continued use.
I cannot emphasize enough how important that “we” are going through this process.
Martinez and I continue our conversation while laying on our steel-hard rusted chairs. I think of a huge gulp of Bud Light running down my throat. Just the thought of it excites me enough. I randomly ask Martinez what his favorite beer is. Any kind of beer can be his favorite as long as it’s icy cold. Shining layers of crystallized beer hidden under bubbles – that’s ecstasy. Should’ve brought some. No, I’m not risking it. Have you tried that bulgogi ham and cheese sandwich at the Katusa Snack Bar? No, I have not, but I heard it’s the shit though. They are taking three dollars for a bottle of Gatorade, and that’s bullshit. For real? Talking bullshit the way through the course of time, hopefully, one day, every tank in the battalion will achieve satisfactory results from this exercise. Then, he and I can go back to our barracks and share several bottles of beer in a freezing-cold air-conditioned room. Of course, a Jagerbomb fits more to his taste, but that’s not what I’m trying to say.
The clock strikes noon, and it’s my turn to return to the bay for some sleep. “May God bless you.” I leave those words behind as I stuff my belongings into an assault pack, making heavy, yet cheerful-enough steps towards the bridge that connects my duty station and the bay. I’m going to take a cold shower, get something to hydrate myself and indulge in some endless and comfortable dreams. When I return, Martinez will still be there, half asleep.