Posts Tagged ‘humor’

A Day In The Field – Month 9 (or …)

November 22, 2009

Mad Moments 5 (or …)

How Projects Get Messed Up (or …)

Spring 2007

I dragged ex-boss Tom out to Alamo Road today. Well, come to think of it, he rather foolishly volunteered (must have been a dreadful meeting on the schedule …), choosing a day dedicated to digging holes in the road shoulders.

This unpleasantly arduous activity was ordered by some officers and talking heads up in air-conditioned Baghdad. During a recent telecom they asked whether the road is really 9cm thick all the way out to the edges. While I stifled giggles and rolled my eyes, Tom leaned toward the phone speaker and said, “For the most part, yes!”

A typical Tom answer, this is accurate without necessarily being true. It was offered with the hope that (for the most part!) they’d be satisfied and move on. Really, of all the things to be worried about on this project, the edges of the road probably ought not be on the radar. These aggressive vocal overseers of ours could worry about the subbase, the base, the thickness of the asphalt in the lanes, or in the center, or better yet, the constitution of the asphalt itself! Really, if so inclined, Tom and I could suggest some really important things to worry about … but Tom is a secretive and diplomatic fellow.

My own inclination would be to tell all these generals and colonels and majors and paper engineers every single deficiency of the project. Left to my own forthright devices, I would tell them that due to their constant, unholy pressure to get the work completed at the stated expense of quality, they’re now in no position to be whining and fretting to us about the outcome. I would also point out to them (politely, and using the word ‘sir’ as often as it struck my fancy) that their own pitiful budget was understood at the very beginning to be inadequate to the needs of this light military transport road, meaning the design was substandard even before, by the way, they changed the designation and intended use of the road from a light military transport road to a heavy military transport road halfway through the project without having provided any collateral shift in funding or design in order to accommodate their own changes …

But that’s just me.

Where was I? Oh yes, the telecom wherein the brass are beating on us (again) and Tom is taking it … Is the asphalt 9cm thick on the edges? For the most part it is.

“Go measure it,” someone snapped at us through the phone speaker. I made a nasty face at Tom. He made a nasty face back, then leaned toward the phone speaker and chirped, “Roger that!”

I’ve noticed that when Tom thinks an order is stupid, he says, Roger that! instead of something more normal for a civilian, like ok. I’ve noticed that most of the military men respond to stupid orders with that phrase as well. I’ve decided that I’m going to practice doing it. I’m going to try to remember to add “sir” to the end of it to see if Tom can keep from busting out laughing when I say it.

Just for the record, digging eighteen holes at five kilometer intervals down the shoulder of a 109 kilometer road in 120F wearing a full uniform and body armor … sucks.

About four hours into this farce we finally hung it up. Sweat-stained and a bit sun-dazed, we climbed back into the Land Cruisers and told the PSD men to take us home. I stared out the window wondering how the colonels would take the news that only about seventy percent of the road edges were to spec. The answer to that didn’t take long to figure out, so I emptied my mind and just stared out at the beautiful expanse of gold sand, effectively ignoring the stupid road we were now driving back north on, passing all the stupid little holes we’d chipped into its shoulders.

“I think,” Tom said suddenly, turning to look at me with a satisfied expression on his face, “that we should write up the scope of work for the maintenance contract on this road so that the contractor has to make all the patches to the road in shapes of different animals.”

I stared back at him, trying to catch up. Road patches in the shapes of animals?

Ignoring my blank stare, Tom went on. “Then we could just say, There’s a new pothole out by the lion, or The giraffe area needs a surface treatment – it’s unraveling.

We both turned our heads to look straight ahead, between the heads of our PSD men in the front seats, through the ballistic windshield glass, and down the long straight black asphalt road we were traveling. Huh.

“It might help keep the convoy truck drivers awake,” I suggested. “The road has so few landmarks of any kind. This would give them something fun to look forward to. They might say, Oh good, we’re already to the rhino – we only have the mouse, the lizard and the tiger, then we’re already on Tampa!”

“We could have the contractor post signs,” Tom added. “Just a picture of a rabbit or a donkey on the sign. Then people would know where they were in the dark.”

I turned to stare at Tom again for a moment. His cheeks were sunburned, but other than this idea of road patches in the shapes of animals he didn’t seem sun-addled. His mysterious knack for maintaining a sense of humor and essential calm in the face of profound stupidity and aggravation might no longer be so mysterious; a creative imagination is a valuable resource. 

“What?” he asked.

“I just had no idea,” I admitted.

I turned back to my own window and stared out at the desert, now choosing animals that might be appropriate to the environment: lizard, goat, hawk, toad, sheep …



Those PSD Teams – Sept 2006 (2)

November 14, 2009

Boss Tom has climbed up a ladder to the roof of the train station, following the contractor and two of his employees. It’s about 120F in the shade, 130F in the sun, and 140F in body armor. I don’t feel like climbing two stories up a rickety ladder to walk around on a concrete tile roof in the sun. I must be getting old …  

I wait in the yard below. My South African PSD guard stands as close as my shadow, bumping my elbow. The small station enclosure is quiet and still. Two contractor workers lean against a shady wall twenty meters from us, watching. I smile at them.

“How many years, missus?” one of them calls out.

I don’t understand what he’s said through his thick accent, so I give him a quizzical look and shrug.

“How rude!” my guard mutters. He must have understood what the man said …

“How many years?” the Iraqi man repeats, smiling and waving to me.

“He’s asking how old you are,” my guard says in a voice that betrays surprised outrage. “That’s rude! He can’t ask our women how old they are!”

Indifferent to the cultural rule that is insulting my guard, and ignoring the quaint if bizarre phrase our women, I grin at the Iraqi. “Forty six!” I call out to him.

I can practically feel the surprise pass through the body of my guard. Out of the corner of my eye I see him staring at me and sense it’s the number that’s surprised him more than the fact that I answered the question at all.

The Iraqi worker starts walking toward us, his friend trailing along. “Twenty six?” he asks me, sounding confused. “You, twenty-six,” he says more firmly.

I laugh and shake my head. He bends down and writes “26” in the dirt in front of me. He looks up at me with his eyebrows raised in a question.

I bend down to wipe the “2” away with one finger, replacing it with a “4.”

The Iraqi and his friend stare at me in utter surprise for a moment, then their faces break into wide smiles. They give me an enthusiastic thumbs up, nodding and grinning with approval.

I laugh, catching my guard’s eye. He’s grinning and nodding as well. He gives me another thumbs-up.

I’m secretly hoping he’ll give his teammate Max a heads-up. Max has been politely hitting on me. He’s twenty-four years old!

Every woman is a ten in Iraq. I guess it’s fun while it lasts …


Hakim – 1

November 12, 2009

Tonight the Brit Mil runs an op in the city. On the way in they hit a string of IEDs, then get tangled up in a prolonged battle. Explosions light up the distant horizon. Every once in awhile the deep and prolonged low blast of a really big piece of weaponry bumps the air. The concussion is so low and deep, outside a war zone the sound wouldn’t even be noticed. But we’re fine tuned. If someone drops a book in the opposite wing of the office, a couple people hit the deck on our side.

I stand outside in the dark listening to the battle, guns and tanks a far off rumble. Otherwise the night is like any other: hot and still.

As I step into the office to grab a bottle of water out of the cooler by the reception area door, Crazy Rob rushes out from the office wing. “One of my Iraqi engineers just called me from the city, Seren!” His face is red and he’s clearly agitated.

I’ve been standing quietly outside for twenty minutes, listening but deliberately not thinking. About anything. I hardly ever get to do that. What Rob’s just said takes a few long seconds to sink in, and then I can’t connect it to anything. “From the city … ?” I echo dumbly, wondering why he’s so worked up about that. It’s night, so of course the engineer is calling from the city, from his home.

“They’re shooting at his house!” Rob says. “The Brits are fighting in the city and they’re shooting at his house!

Now I have a different disconnect. “He called you on his cell phone?” I ask stupidly. “In the middle of a firefight?”

“Yes! Yes!” Rob shouts, which is not necessarily a fair indication of anything since he shouts all the time; his voice is as large as his bearlike body. But his face is red and his eyes are big and his grin is nervous. “Did you hear them fighting? You can hear it if you go outside! He called me, then he got cut off!”

“What did he say?” I ask stupidly, wondering what one could possibly find to say on a cell phone from the middle of a battle. LTC Corviday wanders into the room in his sweaty PT clothes and grabs a bottle of water out of the cooler.

“What did who say?” Crowsie asks us. “What are you worked up about tonight, Robbie?” He holds a bottle of water out toward me, raising his eyebrows. I take it from him without answering his questions, still processing this whole scene.

“One of my engineers just called me from the battle!” Rob repeated for Crowsie. “His house is right in the middle of it!”

“He called you from his cell phone?!” Crowsie asks, incredulous, laughing. Good – so I’m not the only one who thinks this is bizarre. “What did he have to say? How’s the battle going?”

Rob is practically hopping up and down by now, clearly having expected some other response than our laconic confusion. “He said,” Rob shouted, “The British are shooting at my house! We’re all on the floor to hide from the bullets! Then we lost the connection! I could hear the women and children screaming, and the battle going on in the background!”

Crowsie and I look at each other blankly for a moment, then both burst out laughing.

“Why did he call you?” I ask Rob. “Does he think you can call off the Brits or something?”

“Yeah!” Crowsie cries. “Get on the phone to Brit command! Tell them to quit shooting at our engineers!”

Crowsie and I are laughing again, loving it.

Crowsie crouches in the characteristic pounce-stance he gets when he’s about to play out something good. “Excuse me, Brit command? Yes? This is Rob over at B- …” Crowsie says with a calm but worried expression and his hand held to his face as if holding a phone receiver, “I need you to call off some of your guns in the city. We’ve got engineers living there. What? No, I don’t have an address. Can your high tech whiz kid equipment stuff zero in on a cell phone and just avoid shooting at that? Huh? Oh sure, hey this is great – let me give you the number …”

I’m bent over laughing, and Crazy Rob is calming down a little bit, laughing with us.

“Hey, we could go get them, Seren!” Rob cries. “You and me – you’re game, aren’t you?”

Sure, I’m all caught up now. “You go snag a white pickup from the construction site next door,” I tell him. “I’ll go find a couple sheets. It’s dark. If we put them on like robes we can get to the city, no problem …”

“Then we just flash our IDs when the Brits stop us,” Rob shouted. “We’re in! Hell, the Brits might even give us an escort!”

“Are you nuts!” I cry, “They’re going to be way too busy! Once we’re in the city we’ll be on our own.”

“Let’s grab a couple of your PSD guys,” Rob suggests. “They can take care of any Brits that mistake us for Iraqis – you know, if we can’t get the robes off quick enough!”

“Right!” I agree, already running through the teams in my mind, picking the guys I want with me. “I’ll round them up while you steal the pickup …get a beat up one if you can …”

This cracks us all up again. Is there any other kind?!

“I’ll go put on some cocoa,” Crowsie says, heading for the door. “You guys are gonna want a little pick-me-up by the time you get home …”

Crazy Rob and I spend another half hour fine-tuning our plan, getting closer and closer to believing we could pull it off while we wait in vain for Hakim to call again.

… Just another day in the land of tangible terror and pain. Later I lie awake in bed, wondering whether Hakim is still alive.


Joost The South African – 6

November 10, 2009

Joost and Fahd and I spend the morning teaching each other useful phrases in each others’ languages.What strikes us as potentially useful might not be found in standard tourist phrasebooks.

I will burn down your house!

Ek sal brand af jou huis!

وسوف يحرق بيتك

(You never know … )


Joost The South African – 3

November 9, 2009

Lacking a job and English or Afrikaans-speaking companions, Joost observes the Iraqis at the site in the way that a wildlife biologist might observe his favorite animals in the wild.

“If you will watch these men,” Joost told me today, “you will begin to notice that one of them always seems to have a plan. You can tell by the look on his face that he has a plan.”

“Yesterday I sat by the window looking out at nothing happening on the desert.” Joost smiled a little, liking the way he’d said that. I smiled back because I knew exactly what he meant.

“I saw a man walking over here to this camp from the asphalt plant,” he said. The asphalt plant lies about half a mile away from the engineering staff’s fortified trailer camp where Joost lives and doesn’t work. Between the asphalt plant and camp lies a flat pan of silty sand, criss-crossed with random patterns of tire tracks, stray berms, and scattered small piles of black asphalt that look like peculiarly large piles of pooh. When work was actually being done on Alamo Road, the Bedu truck drivers would get their dump trucks loaded up with asphalt at the plant, then – being that they were paid by the load – they would drive out of the plant, dump the load of asphalt on the desert, and quickly return to take their place in line for the next load. Very clever, though not particularly productive.

In any case … “I watched this man walking toward camp,” Joost continued, looking through me as if watching the scene unfold again in his mind. “By the look of him, you could tell that this man had a plan. He brought his plan across the desert and along the berm and through the gate and into camp. He strolled over to the shady side of a caravan where a group of men were sitting, and he said something to one man.”

Joost smiled and his eyes focused once again on my own. “When he said it, whatever it was, the group of men in the shade all roared with laughter and started poking that one man as if adding jokes to the joke.”

“The man from the asphalt plant didn’t stay after he’d executed his plan,” Joost told me with satisfaction. “He had delivered the joke! It had been successful. He stayed only for the laughter, then he turned around and walked back out through the gate, across the desert, and into the asphalt plant, leaving all the men here in camp laughing for the next hour.”

“I think,” Joost concluded, “that this is a long walk in 115F to deliver a one line joke. I think it is a long way to walk to make men laugh, but they will do this! I would not. I would think about my plan,” Joost admitted, “then I would make myself a cup of tea and relax in the chair in front of the fan, chuckling while I imagined how successful this joke could have been had those men not been so far away on such a hot day.”