He's traveling to Djibouti tomorrow. I don't even know where Djibouti is. The only thing that comes to mind is some bizarre link to an old Frank Zappa album.He's spending three years with KBR, the Houston-based parent company of Halliburton, doing construction work for the U.S. military, working 12-hour shifts seven days a week, 330 days a year for three years, like some sort of modern day indentured servant. A graduate of West Point, a member of the Army Corps of Engineers who did special construction projects for those special soldiers who never talk much about what they do, a kid high up on the list of Most Likely to Succeed in our high school, the boy every girl wanted to date, the guy every other guy wanted to be... He's back working construction. He did a Marine Corps marathon for the first time a few years ago. He's almost fifty. He just got married for the first time last week to the daughter of a Special Forces Vietnam vet. Fucking A.
At 10 o'clock, I said goodbye to him, my childhood friend of so many years. We drift into and out of each others' lives episodically. I sit in a Starbuck's and it's so easy for me to say, good luck, hope everything works out well for you. Email me when you get a chance. The usual inane bullshit end-of-conversation we both hate so much, but we can't avoid it; neither one really wants to hang up, because hanging up means acknowledging the fact that he's really going to go through with it. He's making this huge midlife change, like a car on a highway that suddenly veers off a four lane highway for some off-roading fun. Except it's not fun. It could be the kind of nightmare job you thank your lucky stars you don't have to do because you just got your college degree, and although you acknowledge the importance of the work you imagine some French Foreign Legionnaire, some ex-con who hates society, who likes shaving with cold water and drinking whiskey straight out of a bottle, someone like that doing the kind of work Jim's going to do now. A normal American in highly abnormal circumstances.
Yes he was screened. Yes he was given a psych test. Did they seriously think a guy who'd gone through Ranger school and was Airborne-qualified wouldn't pass? I could have told them he'd pass the first day I saw him run hamburger drills during our two-a-day football practices, absorbing the kind of punishing hits from upperclassmen that made the rest of us wince. He could handle anything.
Lord Jim, we called him. After we read the Joseph Conrad novel in our smart-kids' lit class we all looked at him and called him that. He hated the appelation. And now Lord Jim's in Africa with a bunch of other ex-Army ex-officers and roughnecks, building shelters for the 2000 coalition forces there.
He's been issued a Tyvek CBR suit - chemical, biological, and radiation resistent suit and a Hewlett-Packard laptop with CD/DVD drive, 1.3 GHz processor and 30 gig hard drive. The room had hundreds of them in boxes, hundreds. He'd never seen so many in one place before.
I don't know if he's been issued a gun or not. It hardly matters. Once a soldier, always a soldier. It wouldn't be hard to imagine showing up at his no doubt appallingly primitive barracks and someone slipping him a pistol, grip first, telling him to go ahead and keep it handy, just in case, and him field stripping it and cleaning it that night, just like he'd done hundreds of times at the Academy, right after they polished shoes and set out the clothes for the next day.
Tomorrow he'll fly to Paris, have a 14 hour layover, and then fly down to Djibouti. I have no doubt that if he wears his black turtleneck sweater a few hearts will flutter a bit faster in the Paris airport. He speaks French fluently, of course. He used to win or place in state-wide competitions, I can't remember which. The high school girls back in the day would beg him to say things in french, and they'd get this moony look when he would. He'd tease them. He wouldn't speak right away, or he'd speak in butchered French, so that they'd have to beg him, and he loved every minute of it. He'd smile that Cheshire cat smile. When his parents would take him to France the locals were less unimpressed than they usually were with this mixed-race American kid with the cafe au lait skin. Fast forward to tomorrow, when the 30- something women will see this tall slim man walk gracefully through the airport and order a coffee in impeccable French. They may glance at his left hand, which may or may not have a ring on his third finger. THey'll notice his veined hands and his unlined face, and wonder how old he is, because he could be anywhere between 30 and, what? 40? 42? They'll look into his green eyes and they will fall in love. I've seen it happen so many times before.
He'll be gone in 14 hours, girls. Gone for four months before his first 10 days back stateside for some well deserved R&R.
Djibouti. I'll really have to get a map and find out where that is.
Hey, see ya, man. You take care. OK. Yeah, I will. And you write too if you get a chance. Really. Yeah. Yeah. Okay I'll do that. And listen...
You take care of yourself.