Ropey, old-man arms and plaid sleeves stretch out from under a tan ballistic vest as Gene offers up a cup of the care-package coffee he just brewed. Dense, wiry grey hair and supporting moustache compliment a slight southern drawl. With these features and the opaque, black coffee, Gene might have sprung from a screenwriter’s description of the chatty, avuncular guy you unintentionally sit next to at some Badlands truck stop – the halogen lights flickering at the pumps as a waitress slides your tuna melt across the laminate counter.
“Have you read any Calvino?”
“Well, there’s a short story about children gathering around a fire. Its night-time and as Calvino tells it, flames lick up into the night, and as the story gets told both words and heat ripple across their faces. But behind them, the dark is cold and endless. And of course there’s a witch.
What’s important though, is the narrator’s lilt — his pitch and timbre; there’s pacing and tempo: all the things that make a good campfire tale. The story gets told again and again, to different groups of children. But if all the orator’s skills fall into perfect harmony, the flames will reach to his full height as he stands above the kids, seated on the ground. The flames spiral and the witch erupts from the logs and embers, taking a child into the flames and vanishing.”
Days later, looking south across Kabul’s smog-filled valley, Gene tells me another tale.
“A few months before you got here, we had a wire service photographer come out… He was AP, or maybe Reuters. He’d also been bouncing around the various camps and we did the same thing with him.”
“You made him too much coffee and stuffed him full of three-year-old Werther’s?”
“Yeah, there’s that. We also did the driving tour: Checked out the ANA, poked around in the Soviet wreckage, pointed to the CIA compound that you’re not allowed to know about. So he’s up here, walking around, swapping lens, but he’s also grumbling about something. After a while he comes over to me, acting like some sort of movie director, all worked up about the smog. “The light, the light” – he actually said this – “I can’t work with this light.” So we drive back down to Alamo and a day later he’s gone, unimpressed.”
“So, I heard this from another PA guy down near Helmand, that after the Reuters guy left Alamo, he headed down to the fighting. So he’s down with the Jarheads around Masum Ghar, trundling through the vineyards in a HumVee, and he’s complaining about how boring it all is — How this is the most boring assignment he’s been on. And that’s when they hit an IED. The Jarheads are all kinds of fucked up, and the photographer gets his leg blown off.”
“Really? Shit Gene, that’s…”
“Predictable? It’s a predictable fucking story. You just don’t complain about the quiet, especially down south. He shoulda’ known better than to complain about the quiet. You complain about the quiet and a witch will sure as shit jump out of the flames.”
For all the sadness and boredom, for all the death and waste, and beauty in this war, you can (mostly) be sure that those who live are glad to not be dead. And in that gladness, you can easily turn to humour and storytelling, and in the telling of those stories the occasional witch will arise.