Yoost The South African – 8

Today is the last day that Joost and I will meet at Alamo Road. Joost will fly home on leave later today, and if he returns at all it is unlikely that he’ll be sent back here to Alamo Road. I’m unhappy about his impending disappearance. Something absurd or mildly alarming is often taking place at Alamo, and since I am only a transiting observer to the contractor’s soap opera, the events are entertaining to me. Because Joost lived at the site with the Iraqis, he was able to collect the stories to share with me. Without Joost, the only other ‘westerner’ on site, I will rarely hear about some of the most charming or peculiar events.

Besides providing me with amusing stories, Joost has been a thought-catalyst, an imagination spark, asking wonderfully simple questions that lead to conversations that wander freely through many subjects. This isn’t true of any other people that I converse with here in Iraq. I feel as if Joost is my innocent secret life: outside the military, outside the t-walls, behind the backs of my PSD guards, he is a breath of real life, where creative people meet and talk about many things that might touch only briefly on construction difficulties, rockets, rules, or frustrations unique to a war zone.

I know that I’ll miss Joost. I also know that once he’s gone, it will only matter that he was ever here. That is not misworded … it will only matter that he was ever here.

***

When I arrive at Alamo Road today, Joost greets me as I climb out of the Land Cruiser. He looks quite comfortable and alert, which is not always the case because it is almost always too hot for a large man to look alert and comfortable.

“I have been very busy being useful this morning,” he tells me as we walk to his office trailer. “It is only ten o’clock in the morning, and already I have saved a man’s life.”

“Now you must tell me the whole story,” I request, laughing because Alamo Road has provided me with another surprise.

“I will tell you the story from the beginning,” Joost assures me when we’ve settled ourselves in his office. “Where all stories start …”

I nod happily.

“Over the past few weeks,” Joost begins, leaning back in his chair and wiping a nine of sweat from his neck, “at nine o’clock each evening many men at the site will line up at my door for surgery.”

This is surgery in the British sense, meaning that they are lining up in front of his door as they would at a medical clinic.

“I would open my door at nine o’clock exactly,” Joost says with a grin. “Just like a real doctor! I would listen to the health complaint of each man, and then decide on the treatment. One man would receive aspirin. One man would be given a shot. Some needed injuries bandaged.”

“I am trained only as a combat medic,” Joost explains without apology. “But there is not a doctor here for the men. I do not have a wide selection of medicines in my med kit, but I have many aspirin and many bandages. Many men receive aspirin tablets, which I will tell them is other, more interesting medicine.” We grin at each other. Hey, whatever works …

“About a week ago,” Joost tells me, “I ran out of medicines and bandages. At nine o’clock I did not open the door, having nothing to give the men. They waited patiently outside my door for a long time before one of them knocked. When they knocked, I opened my door to announce to the line of men that I must close my surgery.  I have run out of everything – medicine, bandages, needles.”

“One man shakes his head and tells me, You must use the medical kit that belongs to the medic!”

“The medical kit that belongs to … what?” Joost said, looking at me with mild surprise. “Did you know that there is a medic here?”

I shake my head, knitting my brow. “I’ve never heard of a medic here,” I admit to him. “That seems like something we would have heard about …”

“Yes,” Joost says in a baffled voice, and we both looked at each other for a moment then burst out laughing.

“So I was confused and intrigued at this news of a medic!” Joost continues. “I quizzed this man who mentioned this and discovered that, yes, there is a mysterious company medic at the site, and he has been here all along. No one talks about him, and no one will go to him because he keeps his med kit locked and won’t give anyone any medicine from it!”

There is no use asking why a medical man with a medical kit refuses to do anything medical … this is not a big surprise in Iraq, and I can’t explain why. Just because it is not a surprise, though, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t strike us as quite funny!

“I asked the men where this mysterious medic lived,” Joost continues, “and they led me to his trailer. I knocked on the door while all the men stood clustered behind me watching. Perhaps there were twenty or thirty men watching me knock on the door.”

Joost and I grin at each other again, as we both know that this is perfectly normal behavior for the Iraqi men, to cluster closely around one man who is doing something, although it seems peculiar to us.

“After I had knocked two times and waited without getting any response,” Joost told me, “one man behind me said, The medic is on leave. He will not be in the trailer. The other men all nodded and said, Yes, he is away on leave and has been for some time.”

“Why did they not tell me before I knocked?” Joost asked rhetorically. We both burst out laughing. It can’t be explained logically why the men didn’t tell him, but it is also perfectly predicable behavior for the Iraqi men.

“Well, although there is not a man in the trailer, it is possible that there is a lonely med kit in there, patiently waiting to get to work … so I asked the men if someone has a key to this mysterious medic’s trailer.”

Joost pauses to wipe a little sweat from his face and gather his thoughts.  

“A key is a very small thing,” he tells me thoughtfully, “and this is a very large desert. It took me awhile to find this key.”

Delighted with the way he has worded this, I smile and close my eyes for a moment. I want to remember this clever phrasing without interrupting the story.

He smiles back, I think also quite pleased with his words. He pauses to pour himself a bit more tea and to take a sip of it.

“I knocked on some other doors,” Joost resumes, “and drove around in the truck a little bit to find this man or that man whom some other man had said might have the key. In the end, I found the man who did have this small key. If you are persistent, you may find even a very small thing in a very large place,” Joost said smiling.

“I opened the door with this key, and there on the floor of the trailer was the mysterious medic’s kit,” he says with satisfaction. “It is a very elaborate kit, with everything needed for combat injuries as well as headaches and stomach ailments. Since this medic did not want to use such a fine kit himself, I reasoned that he would not mind if I did.” Joost grins at me, enjoying his own silly logic. I nod in happy agreement.

“I picked up the kit and carried it to my office,” he concludes. “The following night I am back in business, opening my door at nine o’clock in the evening for surgery …”

“Is this the kit you used to save the man this morning, then?” I ask, ready for the rest of the story.

“It is,” Joost agrees. He offers me a cigarette from his pack, and waits to begin the story until we have both lit our cigarettes and taken sips of water and tea.

“Before you arrived, then,” Joost began, “I had been sitting here in my office contemplating many things. Suddenly the door flew open and three men rushed in shouting that a man was dying and that I must save him.”

“I ran outside to find a man lying on the ground suffocating with an asthma attack,” Joost says calmly.

“Was he breathing at all?” I ask.

“Just a little!” Joost tells me. “He was nearly unconscious. I ran back inside and grabbed one of the oxygen bottles from the mysterious medic’s med kit. I ran back outside to the dying man. But when I tried to use the oxygen bottle … it was empty!”

Joost pauses so that we can both grimace at each other, because this sort of circumstance in an emergency is also not a surprise in Iraq. One must be prepared for important things to be broken or empty.

“I ran back inside and grabbed the other two bottles …” Joost continued. “But they were empty as well!” 

Yeesh!

“So I ran back inside once more,” Joost said, ignoring my laughter. “I rummaged quickly through the kit for some fancy medicine, which I found. By the time I got back outside, the man was not breathing at all. He was turning quite blue!”

I shake my head, unhappy with this, even knowing the happy ending.

“I gave him a shot of this fancy medicine, jabbing him through his clothing. Have you seen the medicine that is used for people who are dangerously allergic to bee stings?” he asks me. I nod.

“This is the fancy medicine that worked,” Joost tells me. “Within minutes, the man was sitting up!” Joost opens his hands in front of him to accept this miracle all over again.

“Half an hour later, the man was standing up laughing, all the other men teasing him about having collapsed and for having looked so funny trying to breathe.”

“They are wonderful, aren’t they,” I say. “They will laugh at everything.”

“They are good people,” Joost agrees. He leans back in his chair and studies my face, smiling.

“So you see, I have been very busy being useful this morning, my last morning at Alamo Road,” Joost assures me.

An hour later Yoost walks me to my truck. He watches as one of the PSD men opens the door for me. I climb in and buckle my seatbelt.

“Enjoy your leave,” I tell Joost. The PSD men are ready to go, waiting for me to close my door. “Be safe.”

“Be safe,” Joost replies, the standard Iraq parting phrase.

I pull the door shut. He lifts one hand in farewell as we drive away. I hold my palm against the window, knowing it’s probably the only thing he can see through the tinted ballistic glass. 

It seems likely that I’ll never see Yoost again. In another place, another time, I would have hugged him for a long time and thanked him for all that he gave me – all the stories, all the laughter, all the fine and easy companionship amidst the rubble of Alamo and the rumble of camp life.

But this is Iraq.

I sleep soundly on the two hour drive back to camp, jarred awake only on the worst parts of the dusty tracks and broken pavements.

 ______________________________________________________

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