Sand Between My Toes
“To Deploy in Support of Operation Desert Storm”
by CJ Landers
Turbulence. The 747 dropped into an air pocket with just enough of a jolt to rouse me from sleeping – bobbing up and down in the sky like a paddle ball on a short elastic string. I lost my pillow to the floor, and my left cheek pressed against the cold ledge beneath a window that would not open. My neck ached, my arm tingled, and, as I rubbed my eyes, I noticed that the side of my face now had the same pattern as the ledge did. A tense soup of muffled sobbing and mumblings of home filled my ears. I reached for the white canvas window blind, intending to tug downwards on it so that I could take a look outside. I left it closed.
Once the little green light above me signaled that it was O.K. to get up again, I decided to stretch my legs for a while. I unbuckled my safety belt and attempted to maneuver through the clump of legs and carry-ons that belonged to the officers who sat next to me.
“Excuse me, sir,” I whispered to each with due respect.
Wordlessly, they moved their knees aside so that I could pass by.
Every passenger on this immense aircraft wore a brown, black, and white splattered light beige uniform with spit-shined leather boots. Name patches, unit patches, and rank identified each soldier. I had just graduated from combat medical training three days before this trip. I had no rank pinned on my collar. I had no unit patch sewn on my sleeve. Only the letters L-A-N-D-E-R-S over my front pocket and the metal dog tags around my neck would identify my body if it was found.
As I made my way towards the bathroom near the back, I noticed all the faces. The familiar ones greeted me with solemn “hello”’s. Some of them only nodded or looked. The others paid no attention.
One woman sat up straight in one of the blue cushioned chairs and lowered her eyes. In petite, pale hands that gently rested in her lap, she tenderly held a photo of two blond children. I watched her thumb slide back and forth over their faces.
A younger man who sat a few rows behind her turned his head as I passed, but not quickly enough so that I could not see his red eyes and wet face.
A gray haired gentleman across the aisle stared blankly out the window. He tightly gripped his M16 rifle between his knees, rubbing the barrel of the weapon with large, rough hands.
As I stepped inside the tiny toilet room, I wondered if that man would kill someone. I gazed at my reflection in the oval mirror above the sink. I wondered if I would kill someone (or if I could). I turned the faucet on and splashed my face with the cool water. The twelve hours of flight from the states had been warm and rather stuffy. I washed my hands with some liquid soap that smelled faintly like honeysuckle. I did not bring perfume for this trip.
Excusing myself once more, I wedged myself back into my seat. My ears popped. I snapped open the blind and held my breath as the jet sank slowly, steadily beneath the gray tinged clouds. I looked below. Waves of sun-toasted sand flooded the desert. My companions and I sat silently. We were landing.
I hurriedly fastened my equipment belt around my waist. I secured my tightly rolled rain poncho in back between two canteens that were each nestled inside fur-lined cover pouches. A long, thin green case sheathed a seven-inch bayonet at my left side, and two matching ammunition cases sat on either side of the buckles in front. The gas mask, encased in a purse of green canvas, weighed me down like a backpack full of schoolbooks. I slid my arm through a sling, placing my rifle diagonally across my back.
We were herded towards the exits as officers instructed us to move quickly and to stay close together. I hustled behind the soldiers in front of me, carefully placing each step I took down the steep and narrow staircase. The sun beat down on us without mercy. I could almost taste the fresh sweat all around me as we huddled to receive our orders. I couldn’t hear anything above the buzz of whispers. The sergeant who stood at the top of the staircase pointed first toward a scramble of duffel bags and backpacks, and then to a large abandoned airplane hangar about a football field away. I dug through the pile and eventually found the two duffel bags and the backpack on which I had scribbled my name in black. I lugged them over to the large metal building.
Purple, blue, and orange tie-dyed the horizon as the sun slipped away. We waited in long lines, sitting, standing, and pacing. Finally, we piled inside the old, Arabian-made buses that would take us to the assignment camp to receive our next orders. The weak headlights barely cut through the blowing sand at times, but somehow we made it to our destination.
I expected to see large Army tents and maybe some wooden latrines. There were none. All equipment sat jumbled in trucks of all sizes – we would have to wait until morning light to unload and set up camp.
It rained that first night. I stuffed everything I could underneath my cot, away from the rain. After kicking off my boots and socks, I zipped myself inside a narrow, green sleeping bag that rested on top of a rusty old frame. The cot sat awkwardly in the wet sand. The left corner near my feet sank deeply, making the opposite corner near my head pop up. I unrolled my camouflage poncho and draped it across the already drenched bag and crawled deeper inside. Cold. Soggy. Gritty. Sand between my toes.
When the rain stopped, and the clouds rolled away, I stayed awake and watched the night paint the sky black. The stars poked through the night like thousands of pinholes in a dark lampshade. No city lights in this place. It was quiet here for now, I thought. No cricket chirps. No midnight drivers. No telephone rings.
I drifted off to sleep, holding my rifle next to me like a cold, guarding teddy bear.
This was published in the Briar Cliff Review