My first time going to Kuwait put me there over Easter, somewhere near the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, or whatever you wanna call it. The land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, emptying into the Persian Gulf. It was windy, hot and like no other place I’d been before, except maybe Salton City or a truckstop outside El paso after a windstorm.
I’d gotten a call from ‘Rooftop’ a month or two earlier, letting me know their might be an opening on a trip to visit troops overseas and asked if I’d be interested. The dates were pretty close to another trip to Spain that I had already planned, and the lease on my my place was up. I weighed my options, and accepted the offer. I’d be gone over a month, so I let go of my apartment, and packed up everything I owned into boxes. When I would return, I’d be living in and out of my school bus. I was up for some pretty dramatic changes, on top of a trip like nothing I had ever experienced before. I was excited at the idea of everything, I was also quietly hoping I was cut out for it.
Flying across oceans and continents, to the land of oil and sand, I arrived in Kuwait City, 3 flights and 30 hours after leaving the States. I was greeted by a security team of ex-special forces, Americans living in a foreign land, hired to escort the group I was with safely from point A to point B. They were hardened veterans who almost wore humble smiles, faded ranger tattoos, civilian clothes, and ear pieces and communication devices. They said we could be considered ‘soft’ targets (I think they were messing with me), and that the journey from the airport to Camp Arifjan was likely the most dangerous part of our stay. And not because of an insurgency or terrorists, but because the locals drive like maniacs and are known to get in pretty wild car accidents. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all? It hadn’t occurred to me we’d need security when I accepted the invitation, especially the same dudes who protect DV-6. (Aka. High level distinguished visitors, aka. The US military generals)
Being on base was surreal. We wandered around, jet lagged, to a commander’s call to start the day. There, we would learn the basics regarding where we were, and how things worked. Kuwait was really far from the world I lived in on so many levels. Totally fried and wide eyed, I had no real idea what to expect. It was a huge operation, at least to me it seemed that way, serving as the forward logistics base for the entire region. It also had a coffee spot that served the MOAC
“Mother of All Coffees” – which is like a high octane truck stop coffee with four shots of espresso. And there was a Taco Bell fashioned out of a Conex shipping container.
I was in the Middle East as part of a group bringing entertainment to Americans deployed in a conflict zone. Part of that was in the form of shows, but most of it was meeting soldiers, airmen, sailors and so forth. Men and women from every walk of life, their duties handling every detail imaginable to keep this kind of operation in motion. Often times we just listened as people told us their stories, where they were from, what was waiting for them back home, how long they’d been here, and how long till they left.
We spent the week traveling from Arifjan, around Kuwait to various bases, some within just a few miles of Iraq. We were escorted anywhere we went by the security detail, and our convoy was usually a few cars deep. Traveling north, passing oil fields, and a dusty bunch of not much else on the left, the Persian Gulf, Kuwait Bay and Kuwait City. It was like eager sightseeing without much to look at. As we got further from city limits, the amount of debris and post war junk increased. One of the men from our security detail pointed to a section of the water, and to all of its flotsam and jetsam, and told the tale of remnants of the first Gulf War essentially being bulldozed into the sea.
As we travelled further inland, looking left, I gazed on the horizon to wire fences, power lines running parallel to our path, some temporary structures and tents, and a caravan of camels. It was unassuming and underwhelming at best, minus the random dumpster, burned out vehicle or pack of wild dogs. Getting closer to an Air Force base, there would be helicopters circling above the windblown dust that seemed to be intermittently endless. The base we were headed to was owned by the Kuwaiti Government, with the United States Air Force, and the U.S. Marines running operations against a proto-state of fundamentalists that were destabilizing the region.
We arrived and saw even more remnants of the first Gulf War, bombed out bunkers sitting like some dusty reminder of the Iraqi invasion. Only 20 some odd miles from the Iraqi border, they called it the “Rock” – to my best estimation, a lot of what I was seeing in the headlines in other parts of the same region, started out here. On a quick tourist walkabout we were shown, by a soldier pointing a few hundred yards away, where Iraqi troops hung a Kuwaiti General, his remaining soldiers shot. The building, bullet holes and all, sat there unused.
Regardless of politics, policy, and social conventions, we met men and women from the most far reaching corners of Americana and beyond, all types, all colors, creed, shapes and sizes. We talked about anything and everything, from daily responsibilities, the monotony of some of it, and all things in-between. We saw everything from dogs that bite, to robots that disarm bombs, to chow halls and pool halls,the basics of the quick reactionary force, the base fire department, the control tower, and underground tunnels that connected various posts, headquarters or who knows what.
Back on the road, it was more of the same, although two of the vehicles from our convoy were totaled in a wreck during a windstorm when a water truck making a delivery to one of the bases could not see them at a turn… and all hell broke loose. Two of the guys I was with were in one of the vehicles. They were hurt, but not seriously. Camels being raised by a nearby Bedouin tribe were the only witnesses, they walked by unconcerned.
We would spend another week in a conflict zone, surrounded mostly by vast nothingness and uncertainty, juxtaposed by people who are the most hospitable, genuine, caring and appreciative. The duality of it all was subtle but striking, a world away from everything I knew, a real lesson in humility and sharing.
On our way out of the country, the men on security detail suggested that if anybody hits a camel with a vehicle, to just keep going straight to the airport, because the trouble wouldn’t be worth waiting around for.
The first time I went to Las Vegas was in the mid nineties. I was twenty one years old and semi-stranded in Huntington Beach, California, in winter time, at the infamous HB house. A friend named “Comcast” was moving west and had offered to buy my ticket back home to Indiana if I helped him drive across the country. The journey west in the cold months was drab and dull. Peering at the horizon through a windshield down Interstate 40, everything was like a grayscale painting. When we got to California, he let me know he was out of money…
The crew that I was couch surfing with in Huntington Beach was a wild bunch of party go-ers, and amidst a weekend bender, it was decided we’d all road trip to Sin City, a few hours east. If we left soon, the night would still be going by the time we arrived. Quite a few of us packed into a mid 80’s Toyota single cab pick up truck. 3 up front and a few in the bed, under a cap, with beers, gear and a well known bike rider of the time smoking speed out of a tinfoil and glass contraption. He would hold an index finger to his lips, gesturing for me to keep it a secret, before exhaling. I was so naive I wasn’t even sure what was being smoked, let alone how outrageous my entire situation would end up being, thousands of miles from home, all but broke, with no real plan. I think a pattern was forming.
Wandering around Las Vegas, we arrived at the same time as the grand opening of a new casino fashioned to look like a tiny New York City, with small skyscrapers and a miniature Statue of Liberty. I was now possibly in the weirdest desert in the world. Making the rounds, everything was vivid, electric, noisey and full of energy.Everything seemed alive, flashing lights, loud speakers, pamphleteers, tourists of all ages, mothers, grandmothers, entire families, all in one of the most rapidly growing cities in the United States.
The people who walked by us were adults dressed like kindergarteners, donning plastic jewelry, novelty visors made of tinted plastic, wearing sunglasses indoors, and holding refillable drink containers filled with booze. Amidst an endless sea of tourism and gamblers, all in at least as much of a haze as anyone I was with, we ended up at a craps table. Rolling bones across from us was a well dressed man with a bodyguard, groupies, and various random people staring. One of the guys I was with started saying, “Hey, it’s the singer from Soundgarden.” He and his entourage were not stoked, to which a man with a lisp proclaims, somewhat annoyed – “It’s not THoundgarden, its METALLICA…”
We were playing craps with Kurt Hammock. He had his hair cut short, nicely manicured facial hair, and would be playing the grand opening that evening with the rest of his bandmates.
Making our way after midnight to a sprawling semi suburban desert neighborhood on the outskirts of Las Vegas, we discovered a stark contrast to the welcome of the high wattage nightlife of the Strip. The only thing that seemed pretty well lit were our new friends that welcomed us to their dim post party luminescence. Here, people gathered around a hand me down TV and VCR watching a recorded broadcast of some cable news. The scoop revealed a dead body found hog tied in a spare bedroom of a beat up neighborhood home. The newscaster, in front of a familiar looking house, was in the forefront as a young man got undressed in the far right corner of the background. Total hijinks.
Turns out the prankster was also our host, and the house being reported in the news was the one we were staying at. The dead body was the girlfriend of an estranged roommate they hadn’t seen in a while. To just about anyone this news would be shocking, I know I was startled. And when asked how long ago this happened (we were curious how many months had gone by since this tragedy), the response was – “Like 8 p.m., the news trucks just left a couple hours ago…”
That night I stayed in the back of the pick up truck, in a front yard. If I slept at all, it wasn’t much.
I had been in the desert for a couple of days, feeling sorta lost, tired and uncertain, so I called my father. After some small talk, I said, “well Pops, I stayed at a place where they found a dead body last night, it kinda weirded me out…”
He paused, like he was either half listening or didn’t really think I was being serious and said “that’s kids stuff,” eluding to all the craziness he must have seen in his younger days.
He concluded, however, with “don’t tell your Mother” and “make sure you get home safe…”
In just a few words he reaffirmed he was listening and understood, but also knew I’d be fine.
A bloody car was found in the desert soon after this, empty and abandoned. It belonged to the mystery roommate from the house we stayed at. Eventually we were back on the road. Behind us, one of the most depraved, manufactured absurdities I had ever witnessed – Las Vegas, and many of the people who pass through it. I was glad to see it fade off in the distance, through the tinted glass cap, while I sat in the bed of a pick up truck headed west.