You can drive the little stick-shift Hiluxes on the FOBour walled Forward Operating Basebecause no one is trying to kill you there. Its a foreign reminder of home, a normal thing to do every day. Get in a regular truck and drive, on the right side of the road, at a normal speed, with no one trying to shoot you. Simple pleasure.
Bags of gear piled high in the truck beds, we pulled up to the converted hardened aircraft shelter on the west side of the runway, our home base for the rest of our tour. The French-made blast doors of the HAS were cracked open, and the two-foot-thick rounded concrete roof arched three stories overhead. Inside were the aluminum bunk trailers, the plywood offices and ops desk, a tent or two housing dusty equipment. Our whole operation, under the protective concrete canopy.
As I lay in bed that night, in my new cellbed, table, trunk, shelfI stared at the ceiling. I closed my eyes, and I was in my old room in Balad. I opened them in Kirkuk. Closed, and I smelled the diesel fuel off the droning generator, the dead mice caught in our traps, the rotting tent flaps of my fabric-partitioned room in Balad. Open them and its just the sheet-metal ceiling of my box in Kirkuk.
Im back. Im still here. I never left.
It was less than a year and I was back in Iraq. It was less than a minute and I was back in Iraq.
I needed to be back. I would do better this time.
I lie in bed blown up like a balloon, my chest distended and full. The Crazy feeling has filled me to the brim in the darkness of my bedroom, alone next to my sleeping wife. My left arm has gone numb again, left eye twitching as I attempt to close it. The gurgling in my back is growing, first low, then on my upper left side. My heart beats loud, hard, sporadic. I miss a beat. Speed up, catch up. Miss two. A catch-up again. The more I miss the more the Crazy feeling grows. High, full, boiling sea.
I sit up, turn my feet over the side of the bed, and just try to breathe. My lips tingle and my head spins. My wife has found me on the floor before, face to the pine, a divot on my forehead where I hit the dresser corner on the way down. I lie back down to avoid a repeat.
My heart bumps, skips, and gurgles. My jaw aches and I check again for loose teeth. My eye twitches. And again. The Crazy feeling builds and builds. It never stops, it never ends, there is no relief.
My helium chest is light as a feather. The weight of the ceiling is a granite block pushing my chest into the bed.
What the fuck is happening to me?
The streets got narrower and narrower as we entered the town of Hawija. The broad highway gave way to two-lane main arteries, then narrower neighborhood roads, then one-lane funnels between high courtyard walls. Over a curb and through one tiny gap, and our driving mirrors on each side snapped off clean, our door handles scraping away rock and concrete in the pinch point. Flanks scoured clean, our armored truck now matched the security vehicles to the front and rear.
No one drives through the heart of Hawija unless forced; so much hate packed into such a small space. But with the ring roads blocked by route-clearance teams and security cordons, we plunged into the center, as fast as the Humvees allowed.
Dodging old blast craters, dead dogs, and mountainous garbage piles, we snaked through fortified neighborhoods before hitting the marketplace at the towns center. In the busy market, the number of civilians suddenly swelled, and our convoy started to get bogged down, weaving but stymied by foot and vehicle traffic. Soon the mass of humanity started to press in, and we slowed further.
Why are we slowing down? I yelled up to Ackeret, who was behind the wheel.
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