April 25, 2005

Hurry up and wait

Outside a heavy rain falls on Germany. Let's hope it's not pathetic fallacy.

I suspect I'll be typing at you a lot over the next few days, out of sheer boredom. But you never know; the gods of space-a may smile on me; I may be en route in the near future. I almost gave you a time there, but you know, security. (Kidding. Mostly.)

Frankfurt Airport was cavernous, gleamingly clean, ghostly quiet. I guess Monday afternoons are not a thriving time. After some of what I expect I will grow to call "the usual military confusion" I hopped a bus to Rhein-Main AFB, on the other side of the shared runway. Taxiing after touchdown, I saw it to our left: a grid of huge bulbous cargo planes perched on the tarmac, all dull gray, opposite the sleek bright-logo jets across the way.

What's most noticeable about my time so far in the military world - one hour - is how unmilitary it seems. If it wasn't for all the guys in uniform this could almost be a slightly down-at-heel civilian American airfield with unusually tight security. Rental cars, travel agencies, security guards dressed in blue suits, vending machines, public phones, CNN, a shop, a cafeteria, check-in desks and gates. A Harley-Davidson on display in a glass case, a dealer's name posted next to it.

Granted, there are other hints at where you are. Like the "Rules of Engagement" on the wall (#1: All weapons must stay inside your designated gate at all times). Or the way that the convenience store - sorry, PX - upstairs includes a wall full of camouflage gear, combat webbing, rank chevrons, compasses, Maglites, holsters, all-weather notepads and M-16 cleaning kits. (They're out of the one thing I wanted, an armband ID holder, dammit.) A whole spinning rack of D&D books, and another of comics. There are also bins full of free books on tables outside the USO, where I now type. Those will be welcome if I stay more than a couple days. I contributed Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom already.

I'm going to have to kick my habit of referring to men behind desks as "sir" out of politeness. Here they call me sir. That was odd. Everyone military I've actually interacted with - OK, that's three people, to date - has been friendly and sharp and relaxed. And I liked the way their example authorization letter, amid their information sheets, was signed by one "Major Havoc".

I do get a sort of sense of ambient purpose, that I'm inside a machine that may constantly falter and sputter and spit smoke from rusty parts but is endlessly doing something, even if no one is sure exactly what or why. Maybe I'm romanticizing. It's easy to do. When I saw a Richard Roundtree lookalike shepherding fifty kids in uniform - kids I tell you - into their gate, off to Kuwait I think, I did briefly feel more like an extra in a movie than me in my life.

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