War means something different to every person, especially every participant. We did manage a few laughs here and there in Afghanistan. We took our missions seriously, but that didn’t mean we had to take ourselves seriously every second of the day.
A Peck of Afghan Peppers
Early in 2003, my engineer team frequently worked directly with the Afghans. On any given day we dealt with Afghan construction contractors, their laborers, Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers and officers, our interpreters, and even local officials. Thus, we frequently dined with them on all types of meals from ANA chow hauls, contractor lunches around the gas stove, or extravagant meals in officers’ and officials’ homes.
On one particular instance, five of us from our team met with a senior ANA officer in his home for a big lunch. It was a modest apartment in Kabul but he and his family pulled out all the stops. There was chicken, lamb, rice with currants, even some beef which was a rarity. Among the vegetables were, I presumed, some slices of a rather misshapen green bell pepper.
About midway through the meal I grabbed a slice of that pepper and took a bite. Now, I’m as Anglo-European-American as they come, but I do like spicy food. I can make it about 2/3 of the way down the spicy sauce list at the local wings place before I begin having second thoughts. This morsel, however, was less bell pepper than it was white phosphorus vegetable grenade.
About two seconds into chewing I felt fire growing in my mouth. Soon I felt like I had a mouthful of acid about to burn my face off like a giant match head that just touched a flame. This was the hottest pepper I had ever come in contact with…the sweat forming on my forehead, eyes, neck and palms told the story as the ANA officer grinned in amusement. Before long I had inhaled my water and my Pepsi and was doing my best to ask for more rice without hacking up a lung. At one point I’m pretty sure I saw the face of Elvis in the apartment wall.
That was all big fun for the whole crew and I just chalked it up to experience. Experience that would indeed prove handy.
The next week, the kindly ANA officer again invited our team for lunch. We had a slightly different crew after a sergeant from the Texas National Guard had been assigned to us over the weekend. SSG Morales accompanied us to the same apartment where the same table fare was laid out in front of us all.
I warned SSG Morales about my faux bell pepper incident but he just scoffed. “Sir, let this real Chicano show you Gringos how to handle ‘hot’ food,” he said with good-natured Spanish bravado.
I gave him a palms-up “Suit yourself,” as the food started getting served up. He tried the meat, the rice, and then I saw out of the corner of my eye him take the whole slice of that thermonuclear pepper into his mouth. I stopped and stared in rapt anticipation, hoping for his sake he was right.
He wasn’t. I had never seen a darker-skinned human turn purple before that day. His eyes bugged out, he sat up straight, and I heard muffled phrases unsuitable for repeating. He sucked down his bottle of water. He sucked down his Pepsi. He reached over, stole and sucked down MY Pepsi, then did the same to the teammate to his left.
We were all laughing uncontrollably at this point as we watched Morales recover. We used to tell each other that every soldier was an ambassador. I’m not sure whether the State Department would chalk up that lunch as a plus or a minus in overall foreign policy.
That’s not a Toy
Another function of our engineer team was to help deal with ordinance (bombs, rockets, mortar and artillery rounds, ammunition, etc.) that would just “show up” at the ANA bases. The Coalition and ANA troops, when out and about on missions, would frequently find weapons and ammunition caches. We would demo-in-place (blow up) the unusable finds and bring back to the base anything that might prove useful.
One day the ANA came to us with a whole connex shipping container (these are about the size of a semi-truck bed) with hundreds of live artillery rounds inside. The ANA said they just found it and asked that it be stored in one of the ammo bunkers. At this point in the war, we had just quit asking where most of this stuff came from.
So we put together a detail of about eight soldiers and officers from our team and the base support battalion and trucked this connex out to the ammo storage bunkers. We arrived and the NCO in charge, the man with the most knowledge about ordinance, gave us a quick class on handling these things like giant fragile eggs. They could not be stacked upright for fear of having the bases rust out. They couldn’t be stacked directly on the ground, so we had wood pallets along. But the overriding theme was to be very ginger with these rounds.
I don’t know where they found them, but part of the plan involved giant sheets of bubble wrap to separate each layer of shells as we stacked them. That sounded like a reasonable plan to me so we started offloading the ammo, arranged ourselves in a staggered face-to-face chain gang to pass these from the container on a truck down to the ammo bunker. The jokes about not dropping them, hearing something ticking, and slippery hands were rampant.
We got the first shell layer on the pallet so the soldier up front laid down the bubble wrap layer. During all this, there was one poor young Lieutenant that was not handling the stress and joking very well. Her eyes grew wider with every joke and I could see her shaking. This was like blood in the water to the other soldiers so the jokes kept coming. “Oooh, don’t drop it!” and “Hey, look at that camel spider on your boot!”
On went the second layer and we repeated this whole process. The second layer of bubble wrap went down and we started in on shell layer number three. It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that each shell weighed about 40 pounds. During a lull in conversation, shell number two in layer number three was laid flat. Then we heard it…
Crack, crack, cr-cr-cr-cr-ack!
The Lieutenant screamed, turned, covered her ears and jumped backwards a full six feet. We were all startled for a split second, then roared with laughter. The bubble wrap was strong, but not that strong, and the third layer of artillery shells had popped nearly all the first sheet bubbles. Our shells all remained thankfully dormant. The explosions we heard were just those tiny air bladders.
I’m not certain, but I’d say a few human bladders had just become equally empty.
Lost in Translation
We dealt with Afghan interpreters daily. Consequently, the interpreters had to deal with Americans using wildly varying English dialects on a daily basis too. Since even I had a hard time understanding some of our compadres from Louisiana and the “fahtha” regions north toward Maine, I can only imagine the difficulty the interpreters had. So, like us, you had to make your own fun in miserable situations. I’d lay even money some of those guys would mess with us periodically for their own amusement. Being, well, me, I felt it my duty to return the favor.
We had one interpreter, Ma’ah Boo is my phonetic attempt at his name, who worked with us for several weeks straight. He was a good guy and had a decent command of our technical construction-related vernacular. But he had a habit of carrying on lengthy stretches of conversation with the locals, then turning to me and saying “He said ‘Yes.’”
I probably repeated at least twenty times, “Come on, dude, he said way more than ‘Yes’, tell me the rest!” After about a week, I shortened his name to Ma Boob, partially for my own amusement and partially to determine actually how much attention he paid to what I said.
On about week two, when he and I were separate from the rest of the group, I think he’d had enough. “Sir, I do not think you have my name correct, I am ‘Ma’ah Boo,’ not ‘My Boob.’”
Busted. At least this guy paid attention to detail. And I didn’t get any more “He said ‘Yes.’”
Many missions took us way out into the boondocks to meet with Afghans of varying levels of friendliness. We hoped that, by the time they met with our engineer or civil affairs teams, they were the good guys, but we always kept up our guard. I truly do not miss having to formulate a plan to shoot our way out of every single meeting, just in case.
Anyway, I was always keen to see which of the Afghans were paying attention to the conversation with the infidels in their midst. I figured, if their intentions were honorable, they’d be paying attention to us. If their minds wandered to other plans, it made me question what those plans might be.
To that end, we asked the interpreters to teach us a funny phrase or two to lay on the Afghans, just to judge their reactions. I still don’t know why, but, during a lull in conversation, when one infidel points to another, leans in and announces “Ah-spit langast,” or Dari for “My horse is lame,” it’s hilarious.
The Afghans that didn’t smile or didn’t even notice, we kept an extra eye on them. I tried not to take it personally.