I recently wrote an essay for a man who was interested in sharing his life story as a soldier in Iraq. While staying at a Bed and Breakfast in Tuscaloosa during one of the games, we happened to meet a couple who ironically were military. Over lunch he shared stories about his time there. This came only a week after I had interviewed this other soldier. I am a firm believer that there are no coincidences.
I share the story I wrote for the potential client. He has chosen someone else who has more military background but I felt moved by his story of a young interpreter he met while there. This new found friend we met in Tuscaloosa commented that finding interpreters was his biggest challenge. So obviously, with two total strangers talking to me about interpreters (I have never known any) I felt compelled to share~
The only information he gave me was that he had an interpreter named Sasa who was Iraqi. He was funny and always fascinated by American customs and was always inquisitive about the bathrooms at home. He lived in a dirt floored house with no luxuries and no running water. He had just gotten married before taking the job as interpreter. The rest is made up for the purpose of showing him my style of writing. The soldier was from South Florida.
We stood there, eye to eye in a small room with a dirt floor and no ceiling. A group of soldiers stood behind me.
“Meet your interpreter,” the Sargent said.
“Nice to meet you,” I said as I held out my hand.
I was the first American soldier he had worked with. His eyes shifted side to side as he annunciated his English but still with an Iraqi roll lingering on his tongue, “It is nice to meet you.” He awkwardly reached towards my extended hand.
“A good soldier solutes. A new acquaintance or a business man shakes hands. A friend hugs. Now don’t you go expecting a hug,” I told him with a laugh taking enjoyment in the awkward moment. “Loosen up man, loosen up!”
For the next few weeks we were inseparable. I began to appreciate his sense of humor and forward to his showing up for work. On a number of occasions we sat crouched together to avoid enemy fire. While almost finished for the day we were staked out in an abandoned kitchen. Flies swarmed and the heat hovered even though there were no windows to hold it in. The door hung from one hinge, tilted just enough for us to have a clear view of the empty streets. SaSa was standing against it fiddling with a silver coin he had pulled from his pocket and flipped once.
“Heads!” I said loudly.
He jumped, looked around, over his shoulders left and then right for any sign of enemy fire. “Mrḩbā!” he screamed. “Crap! You startled me.”
“The coin, heads I win, tails you lose,” I laughed.
“You really no can joke, you really should not joke me all of the time with your silly American way. You scared me!” he said as he pulled a photo of a young woman from his pocket.
“This is my wife. We just married. She is my life. She gave me this for luck. She made me promise I will be good, alive,” he explained.
“You’ll be ok, man, how about something in your stomach to take your mind off the minutes,” I said.
I sat at a rickety table in the middle of the room and divided the peanuts, trying to put them on a napkin for him. He scooped them up one at a time and ate them, then tore off the end of half of a beef jerky. I pulled a fork that hung from my canteen and gave it to him.
He looked at it and then looked at me.
“Cut your food with it, not with your fingers,” I joked. “Back in the South it is all about the setting of the table. I never really paid attention when my mama taught me about manners, but now I would love to be sitting at a table with her telling me to get my elbows off of it! And if I was at my house, quite a bit more casual I must say, I’d be having a big steak from the grill, and a cold beer. God I miss a cold beer!” I whispered.
“It sounds celebretary,” he said as we began hearing the crunching of tires and gravel. “Tell me more about your fancy meals sometime, and your houses. I have heard about your houses, these bathrooms, these nice toilets for every person,” he said.
“Next time,” I said as we motioned to another group across the alley to load the caravan before us.
We followed and traded off with the new shift. We made it back to the barracks just as gunfire was erupting in the distance behind us.
The next package I received from home was a magazine from Palm Beach. It was not my usual sports angler, but my wife had wanted to show me what all was going on back at home. It was clear the war was merely a blip on a radar of social engagements, festivals, political rallies and fundraisers. The headline article read, “Miss Manners to visit Miami.”
Sasa perused every page. His grin widened as he inhaled photos of socialite’s parties and hooters girl’s ads. He tore out a picture of a grand dining table layered in berries and fine china, flowers and silver goblets.
“Man what I would do for a Roger Dean stadium dog!” I said as I finished off a second jerky. “You want the magazine?”
“Oh, no. I don’t want trouble with the boss or with the wife! These women are quite tasty looking. She would not be pleased. How do you say I am keeping it between the blinders. I get to vacation in a month. I want to take her somewhere special away from here,” he answered.
“Hey if I get out of here you can bring her to see me,” I said.
“Deal, heads I come there, tails I come there,” he said as he held out his hand to give me the coin. “Here it is yours. You give it back to me when I see you in America.” He turned quickly and gave me a hug. I shoved it in my pocket without looking at it.
The next day Sasa did not show up for work. With each passing day I watched for him. A week later I saw a familiar man about his age and asked him about Sasa. They had been told that he was assassinated in his own home on the last night I had seen him. They did not know about his wife.
I took the coin from my pocket and held it in my hand. It was an American made nickel, a symbol of hope to a man from another country in a foreign land. To me, it was another reminder of the stories of war. Every day as soldiers, we are thrown into situations that are intense, demanding, life or death. Those are the easy parts. It is the little moments that speak volumes and flood in on us. Things like small coins, tattered photos, and glimpses of home in the familiarity of something as simple as a fork are what tear at our hearts and again make us human in a God awful place such as war.