doctor at the VA clinic finally admitted I may have a sleep disorder
and entered it in my record. The entry gives me a few bucks of
disability pay, but the dream hasn’t gone away.
a recurring dream I have about twice a week, one of those where you
think you’ve woken up but you’re really still asleep. No matter how
many times I have it I never recognize it. In this dream I wake up and
someone is in the house.
there’re two of them, sometimes three, silhouetted in the bedroom
doorway by the glow of the hall night light. They move silently but by
their outlines I can see they’re not big men and if I could get loose
from the sheets I know I could take them.
struggle to get up as they cross the room, ready to lash out in defense
of home, wife, and children--Individual Combat Training was the one
gift I carried from Parris Island back into the world. But before I can
kick free they are beside the bed. One of them leans over me and a
weight bears down on my chest, pushing me into the bed, pressing the
life out of me. Then the sheet fans over my face, blocking out the dim
light as the pressure increases and I feel my ribs breaking.
how I know it’s a dream--my ribs don’t pop, the sheet doesn’t
rustle--there’s no sound. I hear voices when people speak, but not
engines, or ocean waves, or footsteps. Not the way I dream, anyway.
I wake up in a low-tone body sweat, one foot on the floor as I coil to
jump, ready to tear and rip and savage. But the only movement in the
room is the ceiling fan pushing the warm, humid air. Barbara stirs and
whimpers on her side of the bed. She raises on one elbow to look at me
blearily, then rolls back over--she’s grown used to what my first wife
called my “jump-ups.” I look at her curled around her pillow and the
tightness eases a little in my chest; everything is all right, everyone
know it was a dream, there’s really no need to get up, but after
watching two minutes click by in the green numbers of the bedside clock
I get up: it’s the only way I can be sure. Barbara inches over into the
depression left by my body and mumbles a question. “I’m just checking
on the kids,” I say. She groans and pulls my pillow under her head.
first wife called it “walking the perimeter”; her name was also
Barbara. Both my wives, my Barbaras, have said I have too much Marine
in me, but they don’t understand military training--they take so much
out of you, they have to fill the hollowed-out core with something
else. There’s the First General Order: I will guard everything
within the limits of my post and will quit my post only when properly
relieved. There’s eleven more--one for each of the twelve
disciples, my drill sergeant used to say to make the Bible-belters
choke--and finally the unwritten Thirteenth: A Marine is always
fighting, fucking, or sitting on his ass. I never could bear the
sitting, so I feel my way along the closet doors to the hall.
girl’s room is next to ours. It is larger than our son’s because she is
older; rank has its privileges, even at seven years. There’s a chest of
drawers, a dresser with ornate mirror, a four-post double bed with
heirloom quilt--Barbara’s touch. It doesn’t look like a child’s room.
There’re no toys or books or clothes strewn on the floor. There’s no
little girl curled in the bed.
other room is four running strides away. I know now before I open the
door all it has in it is a rowing machine, ironing board, and my olive
drab footlocker. It would make a fine toy box for a three-year-old, if
Barbara repainted and relined it. I kneel down and slip the latch hasp,
as I do almost every night I wake up like this. My dress uniform is on
top, wrapped in plastic; a set of tropicals under that; some camouflage
battle dress not good for much other than working in the yard; and
underneath, a stack of oblong padded boxes. My medals: a meritorious
service, three commendation, and three achievement medals, a Republic
of Korea ribbon, a sand-colored southwest Asia service ribbon, and at
the bottom, a green, white, and red Kuwait Liberation Medal, with its
palm and crossed swords.
duck into the tiny hallway bathroom to splash water on my face. There
are no toys in the tub. I check the hollows under my eyes in the
mirror, then turn and look over my shoulder at my back. The rash, a
swath of small red pustules, has spread to take up most of the space
between my shoulder blades. It doesn’t like the heat. The VA clinic
gave me some ointment for it, but it hasn’t helped. I used to think the
polyester blend of my uniform shirts irritated it, been obsessive about
wearing only cotton since I got out, but even when the sores are mostly
gone I still scratch.
Barbara thinks it’s funny how I scratch patterns in my skin like some
tribal custom. Toward the end of my first marriage, my ex-wife would
turn away when I stepped out of the shower, my back criss-crossed red
from where I’d raked with my nails as far as I could reach. The VA says
they don’t know what it is. The papers and TV are calling it Gulf War
syndrome--rashes, disturbed sleep, chest pains, dizzy spells,
irritability, memory loss. Memory loss, right. I wish.
go back to our bedroom, trying to slip in quietly. I can tell by
Barbara’s breathing she’s not asleep. She’s been waiting for me, and
when my shoulder touches her warm back she whispers, “So, how are the
I’m sorry,” I say.
am I.” She pops the sheet and moves to the far edge of her side. The
cover settles over her like a shroud.
not going to be able to get back to sleep tonight. I go downstairs for
a drink, and check the doors and windows--walking the perimeter again,
I can hear my first wife saying, my first Barbara. Beautiful Barbara, I
call her to myself. My new wife is Dark Barbara, also a name I use to
myself. Not that she’d dislike it, she prides herself on her
olive-skinned exotic look, but I doubt she’d take kindly to the label
for my first wife, the tall, fair-skinned farm girl I married first.
remember my first Barbara sitting in the kitchen with no makeup on the
morning after I got back from the gulf. Near perfect, looking like a
million bucks even with her hair unbrushed.
children are quiet this morning,” I said. “Did they start sleeping in
while I was gone?”
paused in mid-sip and studied me over the top rim of her coffee mug, an
uncertain smile trembling on her lips. “The kids?” she repeated.
your parents take them for my first night home? That was nice,” I said.
set the mug down hard, slopping coffee over her wrist. “What is this?”
guess I was looking forward to them coming to meet me at the airport,”
I said, adding quickly, “Not that I mind. Last night was quite a
buried her face in her hands. “What is this?” she said. “We don’t have
stopped, then, seeing her shoulders begin to shake. I reached across
the table to her but she flinched away, so I dabbed at the spilt coffee
with my balled-up napkin. “Honey, I’m sorry,” I finally said. “I don’t
know what’s wrong with me.”
sniffled and blew her nose. “If it was supposed to be a joke, it was
pretty sick,” she said, pushing her hair back and straightening up.
closed my eyes against the light from the window, suddenly too bright.
“I’m not feeling too well,” I said.
wish I had known how to do right by Beautiful Barbara. Now and then I
think I should have tried harder. Not that things are bad between me
and Dark Barbara—-not yet, anyway. She has another kind of beauty--long
hair, carefully tended, and soft handfuls of flesh. They look nothing
alike, my first wife and my wife now. Still, I’m afraid of slipping up
sometime and actually saying the names aloud. It feels like I’m
cheating, but I just use those names to keep my two wives and two lives
straight in my mind. There’re a lot of things I’m trying to get
straight in my mind. Keeping things straight is another Marine credo,
the discipline and order my kids don’t like. My kids--right.
couldn’t keep things straight in my first marriage. When my “jump ups”
and night moves began, things started to fall apart. Imagine how you’d
feel hearing your husband go from room-to-room in the night, checking
on non-existent children. I can only imagine what I put her through,
pacing the floor of our old home where the hardwood boomed and rolled,
and the creaking stairs kept record of my prowling.
I pad silently on carpet as I go downstairs for a drink. I stop with
one hand on the refrigerator door; the front of the fridge is bare—no
artwork, homework, class photos. No reason there should be. The kitchen
tile clicks as Barbara’s cat walks across the new tile of our
cookie-cutter home. It’s time to trim her claws again. I’ve faced war,
but I don’t look forward to grappling with that cat. But in the end
I’ll do it. Fighting is a part of Marine training.
Individual Combat Training, they teach you everything is a weapon.
Rifles and pistols aren’t much good when things are tight and confused.
Then there’re bayonets, knives, rocks, branches and sticks, and the
weapons you always have with you: feet, knees, elbows, bare hands,
nights, when I can’t sleep and the itching coils and burns on my back
like a living thing, I would use my teeth to scratch if I could only
reach. Do those sound like normal thoughts? I may have a disorder after
VA won’t call it anything, because once they do they have to pay up.
They just roll their eyes and mutter about how a collection of symptoms
can’t be treated without knowing the cause. One of their experts wrote
a little trifolder for Congress. It says the sleep disturbances, the
rage, the skin rashes, and the social withdrawal of gulf vets are
nothing new: Vietnam vets have them, as did those in Korea, World War
II, even World War I. You look in Civil War or Revolutionary War
diaries, you find something like it in there, too. I’ll buy that. I
don’t care what they call it or who’s to blame--I just want someone to
give me something for it. The fact is something happened to me that’s
given me two lives: the life with my Barbaras, and the life with these
two children I keep looking for. If I can’t get both feet planted in
one life or the other, the tension is going to split me right down the
have a wedding photo on the fireplace mantle that I concentrate on when
I get confused—Dark Barbara’s wedding, her golden skin striking against
her white dress. There are no children in the picture. The only thing I
don’t like about the picture is that the groomsmen, standing behind us,
are a little blurred. The photographer could have done something to fix
that--adjusted the shutter timing, depth of field, film speed,
something. Especially seeing how fussy he was. I remember standing in
the cool church sanctuary, smile frozen on like a permanent press as I
waited for him to take the picture, already. I’ve known photographers
who took better pictures in a lot worse conditions, in Kuwait.
one magazine photographer hitched a ride with my ANGLICO--Air-Naval
Gunfire Liaison Company--right after the cease-fire. He was looking for
a way, any way, to get into Kuwait or Iraq, looking for a story. What
we ran into was a traffic jam. An Engineer Shore Party was at work on
the highway north of Kuwait City.
Parties do construction--operating heavy equipment, putting up
temporary buildings, carving runways out of the jungle. That day, the
dumper trucks and earth movers had been brought in for three purposes:
to clear away destroyed vehicles, to repair the roadbed where bombs had
damaged it, and to dig mass graves.
six miles, hundreds of Iraqi tanks, and armored cars were strafed,
smashed, and burned beyond belief. Most were retreating on this
two-lane road at night, fleeing north as their army collapsed. Then
they were caught by our planes. Loot from Kuwait City littered the
road. About a thousand soldiers left their trucks and tanks, ran off
leaving criss-crossing trails of footprints in the talcum-like desert
sand. They survived to surrender to coalition units.
or whoever remained on the highway died. Our pilots landed chattering
about finding great targets despite the night and low clouds. Missile
launchers, trucks, tanks. We coordinated the flights of fighters by
portable radio, stacking them up like airliners, and called down fire
on these people for four hours straight. No one realized the actual
damage until the first ground troops reached the highway and called for
the Shore Party.
engineers were pulling the bodies out of the wreckage, burying them to
prevent disease, and recording the grave locations using NavStar so the
remains could be recovered by the families and the Iraqi government.
Since we couldn’t get anywhere until the highway was cleared, we
photographer went to work. “What a mess,” he said, checking his light
meter against the desert. He fussed with the tangle of cameras and
lenses slung around his neck, dabbing at them with a little brush.
“Swear to god, I’ll never get all this sand out of here.”
were so many dead we used bar-code strips to mark the body bags. The
bags were green-black canvas and plastic, shapeless and slippery--it
made the bodies hard to handle. We sealed the coins, cigarettes, books,
toys, and letters we’d taken off the corpses in small packets, also
bar-coded. It was tense work, messing with dead bodies, made worse by
the unexploded bombs nearby.
fighters had used cluster bombs on the convoy--fiberglass containers
that broke up to spread hundreds of little bomblets over the target.
Cute word, bomblets. Some exploded immediately, some were time-delayed,
and some were motion-sensitive. They were still going off as we worked,
like the last kernels in a popcorn bag. The photographer ignored our
warnings and poked around, looking for a good shot, until the whir and
pop of a bomblet disturbed two vultures. The birds flapped up and
settled on top of a truck cab. He stuck closer to us after that.
smell of dead bodies hung close to the ground in the still air,
stronger in the deep craters and between the twisted, shattered
vehicles. The first sergeant from the shore party passed out his stash
of cigars to mask the smell, but they didn’t help much.
wish you’d stop moping around here,” the first sergeant said to the
photographer, offering a cigar. “Just take a couple of rolls and go
back to your hotel.” He nudged a nearby body with his toe. It was
curled up on its side, hands held close to its face like a baby’s.
“Lookee here. This’d look good in a family magazine.”
bodies, bodies.” The photographer dismissed it with a wave. “What I
really need is a blown-out tank, something people will recognize the
general shape of but still be able to see it’s been blown to hell.
Something worth a Time or Newsweek cover.”
worked in silence a while, keeping our mouths shut to save energy in
the heat and keep out the smell. As we rounded a gradual curve in the
road, the photographer shaded his eyes and said, “What’s that?”
thought he was pointing at two burnt-out tanks that flanked the road,
their muzzles pointing skyward like charred fingers. Beyond them, a
bent figure in white caught our eye, a smaller brown shape following
him. As he shuffled through the shimmering heat, the figure solidified
into an old man in a white robe. A greyhound-looking dog trotted close
on his heels. As we watched, the man stopped, leaned over a dead
soldier, and spat. The dog yipped and trotted forward, tail wagging, to
the next corpse.
photographer watched as the old man worked his brown lips behind his
white beard, summoning up spit to waste in this desert. “Oh my,” he
whispered, “A man and his little dog have just made me very happy. And
rich.” Cradling his cameras against his chest, he trotted toward the
half-hoped the man would have a taboo or something against cameras, but
we were into another big project. Beside the road sat the wreck of a
truck, a black eagle and three green stars painted on the door--Saddam
Hussien’s elite Republican Guard. In and around the truck lay eleven
bodies. One was wedged, upside down, inside the engine compartment.
Nine more were tangled in the bed of the truck, legs and arms sticking
through the side slats. Their hair and clothes were burned off, skin
incinerated by heat so intense it melted the windshield onto the
dashboard. One corpse lay on its back a short distance away.
were just finishing up the last body when the photographer returned,
shepherding the old man and his dog before him.
‘aleikum,” the old man quavered, gently taking each of our hands in
turn as the photographer snapped away. Peace be upon you.
assalaam,” a couple of us replied, the alien words from our
cultural training forming uncomfortable shapes in our mouths. And on
photographer nearly backed into the twisted remains of the truck trying
to frame a shot of us and the old man. He turned and looked at it like
a prospective buyer, then his face lit up. “Beautiful! The Highway of
Death!” he said, like it was a movie title. His autowinder whirred and
chuckled as he filled another roll of film.
senses were so dulled by lack of sleep and the morning’s work that the
sound of the camera blended with the chopping beat of an approaching
helicopter. The old man and his dog watched it set down on a cleared
section of the highway, eyes gleaming with excitement.
Marine major hopped out the side door, his tan flight suit crisp,
looking odd to us as we stood there in our baggy utilities, none too
clean. He made straight for the truck and circled it, pausing to finger
the ragged edges of a hole where shrapnel had shredded the tailgate.
first sergeant called us to attention before saluting like we were
taught to do back in basic any time an officer appeared. As the
helicopter blades slowed and the engine shut down, we could hear the
major more clearly. He was talking loud and not making much sense.
my truck,” he said. “This is my truck! Used an optical-guided bomb,
thousand-pounder.” He smiled a little and shook his head. “Swear to god
it hit the truck driver in the ear.”
photographer snapped portraits of the pilot. “So you’re one of the
architects of the Highway of Death,” he said.
major’s face tightened. “Now, I don’t see that you should be calling it
that,” he said as the photographer shot on. “It wouldn’t look good in
major, but look around you.”
pilot looked around at the field of charred, smoking remains. “Hell,”
he said, “I’ve seen worse back home around Miami.”
noticed us where we were still standing at attention. “Hey, Marines, am
hadn’t spent his morning the same way we had or he wouldn’t have asked.
We said nothing, but he could see the answer in our faces and on our
hands, coated up to the elbows in soot and gore.
men carry on. Go on about your business,” he said finally.
last body from the major’s truck resembled a man-shaped mound of rich
black dirt. The flesh and the tunic were fused together. Arms
outstretched, helmet and rifle just out of reach of the curled fingers.
Oddly, the face was untouched by fire, eyes closed and forehead
wrinkled as though in concentration, prayer maybe.
pilot, the photographer and the old man and his dog stood watching as
we worked gingerly with the crumbly remains. The first sergeant looked
up at the photographer. “Want to get a picture of this one?”
he said. “These people have been burned so black that you have to open
the lens two extra stops to get any detail at all, and then the
background washes out too bright.”
know,” the pilot said, looking from the body to the truck, “I think
this was the guy standing on top of the cab my last pass. The other
guys were trying to get out of the truck, scrambling like ants when you
kick over a nest, but this guy was shooting at me. No way he could lead
me enough to hit me, hardly time to see me, but I remember seeing his
face light up from the muzzle flash when he fired. Saw his face on the
bomb camera.” He stood there a minute, gouging the powdery sand with
his boot. “Damnedest thing I ever saw,” he said finally. He started to
reach for the rifle and helmet, then stopped.
been checked for booby traps?”
sir,” the first sergeant said. I think he winked at us, but it could
have been the smoke from his cigar tearing up his eye. These soldiers
had the hell bombed out of them in the darkest night, they were just
trying to get away from anything that would draw fire--they didn’t have
time to think about rigging traps.
haven’t been checking for booby traps, sir,” the first sergeant said.
don’t you think you should? Isn’t that one of your jobs?”
first sergeant didn’t answer, just cut me a look that said it was my
job--rank has its privileges. Booby traps aside, I was pretty ginger
with the helmet; who knows but by some freak odds it could have landed
on top of a bomblet or something.
was lucky; nothing but a small photograph and a scrap of paper. I
passed the helmet to the major. He fingered the raised eagle on the
front as we watched.
a nice souvenir, sir,” the first sergeant said. “That and this rifle
would look real good over somebody’s desk.”
major looked sharply at the sergeant, but he kept his face blank and
tapped some ash from his cigar. Removing captured weaponry from a
secured area for purposes other than research or training constitutes
looting under the Hague Conventions, Chapter 1, Article 28. We had to
memorize that one before the ground war started.
major turned to the rest of us, but we got real interested in getting
this last body put away. I turned the photo and paper over in my hands
while someone fetched a pouch. The paper was a letter in Arabic script,
elegant curves and swoops, unreadable but nice to look at. The photo
was of a man, the soldier I decided as I checked his face against the
picture, and his family.
background of the photo was blurred, but it looked like he was kneeling
in front of a riverside park, with boats drawn up on shore. He held a
husky young boy in front of him on one knee, maybe about three years
old. An older child, a girl, maybe seven, slim, leaned against his
other shoulder and looked out of the picture with dark, serious eyes.
The soldier and the two children were dressed in white. He had his
sleeves rolled up and his collar open, relaxed, on leave maybe. A woman
in turtleneck and slacks, olive-skinned and full-bodied, with a black
abaya shawl draped over her arm, stood behind the father and two
children. She had the raised eyebrows and fixed smile that’s universal
body language for “take the picture, already.”
father’s clearly happy keeping an arm tightly around each of his
children, and they are happy being held. Our cultural briefings before
the war told us Arabs value sons more than daughters; you couldn’t tell
that from the picture.
women in Iraq don’t wear the conservative black abaya veils, but the
woman in the picture, probably Shiite, must have taken hers off just
for the photo; one fine dark hand gripped the fabric tightly, ready to
draw it back on as a shield against the public eye. I felt like an
intruder, a voyeur. They were a family in their element, frozen by the
photographer on an outing on a sunny afternoon, and things would never
be the same for them again.
old man in his white robe looked at the picture, then leaned farther
over, his hand on my shoulder, to spit on the soldier’s face.
I shoved him away, clutching the picture tightly in my hand as I stood
and faced him.
old man shouted a string of shrill words none of us understood. His dog
crouched and growled low in his throat. The major looked at me, then
the rank on my sleeve. “Let the man go on about his business, gunny.
It’s his country, after all.”
done with this one, anyway,” I said, crouching to draw the body bag
closed. I guided the zipper shut over the soldier’s face and smoothed a
bar-coded label across the top. The photo and letter slipped into the
small pouch without effort. His bones must had been made brittle by
fire--when I clipped the thin package to the body bag I felt his ribs
give, like dry sticks as they settled under the pressure of my hand.
gunnery sergeant,” the officer said, clearing his throat, “if you find
more rifles I trust that you’ll save them for my unit.” He paused, then
added, “For training purposes.”
91 prohibits disobedience to a lawful order. Article 93 prohibits
disrespect to a senior officer. That’s the Uniform Code of Military
Justice, instilled in us from day one of basic training.
saluted. “Semper fi, sir.”
stared at me, trying to decide if I’m tweaking him or not, but finally
returned the salute and started for the helicopter. He gave me a last
look over his shoulder. I still hadn’t moved from beside the body.
“Carry on, Marine.”
ain’t a Marine,” I muttered as the helicopter lifted over a cyclone of
dust. “I’m a future ex-Marine.”
no such thing as an ex-Marine,” the first sergeant said. “Look, your
cigar’s gone out.”
photographer tried for a shot of the hovering helo, but the sand
whipped over him and he turned away, shielding his cameras with his
arms and body. “Swear to god,” he said, “I’ll never get all this out of
know how he feels. I’ll never get all this out, either. Anger,
confusion, respect for an enemy who would rather fight a jet aircraft
than hide, his family’s loss, his fatherless children.
like a blemish or a scar on a piece of wood. There’s no quick and easy
way to take the scar out and make it like it was never there. No easy
way, and no reason to expect there is. You can just work at it a little
every day with sandpaper, removing the top layer little by little until
finally there is just a hint of it, and if someone looks at it who had
never seen the blemish they would think that there is nothing. That is
the only thing for it.
that, there is nothing you can take for it. Tranquilizers, maybe. The
VA doctor offered to prescribe some to help me sleep, but cautioned me
that it would just mask the symptoms, and could cause some mental
confusion. Figure that’s the last thing I need.
with the night visitors, that soldier’s family is an image I see again
and again; I’m not sure what they mean, but I cannot stop seeing them.
I still dream about him out on that road. The look on his face. Eyes
closed, concentrating, at peace. I’ll never get him out of my mind,
just like I thought I’d never get the smell of burnt bodies out of my
nose, mouth, and hair. The experts say you can’t remember a smell--the
same ones that say there is no color or sound in dreams.
check the doors and windows and lie down on the sofa where I can see
the door. When the sky lightens, maybe I can sleep for an hour or two.
In the meantime I stare at the popcorn ceiling, with dimples and hills
like a map of another country, another world, and think.
it hadn’t been for that day out in the desert, would I be sleeping
never know. It might have been better or worse, all I can be sure of is
that it would have been different.
I’d wake up to the dawn light, and not think of scratching my
unblemished back. Somewhere the soldier would sit sipping sweet tea in
the market souk with his war veteran friends. He refills his
glass from a simple copper pot and tells his one war story about living
through a midnight daredevil drive out of Kuwait that beats the others’
all to hell.
another night, I’d wake up to a child’s cry. I whisper to my wife
beside me, and she rolls over sleepily and asks me to give our son a
glass of water.
another place he would lift his daughter into a boat from the bank of
the river as his young son brandishes a dry reed like a sword, while
his wife in her flowing black robe looks down and laughs, her dark eyes
shining over her veil.
a sunny afternoon, I’d sink to my knees on wet green grass, exhausted
from chasing my soccer-playing daughter, only to be tackled by my boy,
half her height but her equal in energy.
some of those places he lives, and in some I truly live. In those
worlds I am at peace.
Kevin Durden was born in
Savannah, Georgia and grew up at the edge of the Everglades west of
Fort Lauderdale in Davie, Florida. He earned a Bachelor of Science in
History from the United States Air Force Academy in 1989 and served as
an Air Force intelligence officer in Texas, Alaska, and overseas. His
life got really interesting after he married and had children. He is
currently a preschool teacher, volunteer librarian, scout leader,
baseball coach, Sunday School teacher, househusband, and dad in
Columbia, South Carolina.
Reprinted from Ink Pot #5;