Thursday, April 07, 2005

Highway of Hell, Oil Spills, and the House of Killing

The House of Killing was our target, and as we left the FOB, I couldn’t help thinking how silly the name sounded. It sounded more appropriate for a haunted house that lures reluctant kids on Halloween. This macabre name no doubt came from someone that had never before been there.

We were traveling back down the Highway of Hell, past the spot where we’d been hit by an IED. Both sides of the road are riddled with deep holes, the result of IEDs from the past. Where did the contents of these holes come to rest? Did they fall harmlessly on the road, or did they find their mark, penetrating the flesh of a fellow soldier long ago, leaving only a memory? Like a scar that continues to fester without healing, these holes remain long after the initial wound, constantly reminding us of the almost inevitable threat as we speed down the center of the highway. We are a boat upon the river, aggressively navigating this narrow passage, leery of what lies on its banks.

The holes are now obstacles, deep traps that our tires must avoid to prevent an equally as deadly wreck. With the patience of Job, and no light to guide them, our drivers concentrate on staying in the middle. Thomas, looking through his magical goggles, can only see the faint green lights of the humvee in front of us as we cruise down the highway at speeds of up to 70mph. Sgt.W. is in the front with Thomas, while Ray and the medic are in the back. Looking through their night vision goggles as well, they help guide him with soft commands of “Left” or “Right”. Looking down from above, with my face to the 70mph wind, I stand outside the top of the turret to give him more help. The violent wind assaults my chapped lips as I struggle to keep them closed, saliva sometimes escaping my mouth, creating wet streaks across the film of dust on my face.

We got to our stopping point outside of the now familiar town and dropped off the dismounts. They were going to the Killing House on foot, skirting around the town to the west. The infamous Killing House was supposedly where terrorists take the captives of hijacked trucks and kill them. This information was obtained by another platoon, who received it from a kid. He’d also recently seen a man outside of this house carrying an RPG. RPG’s are illegal and something that, when used effectively, can be hazardous to our health. If I see a man with an RPG, he will become a dead man with an RPG.

The dismounts would be walking three kilometers to the Killing House with the intentions of ambushing anyone that arrived. Those of us remaining on the humvees set up a TCP along the highway. A traffic control point in the dead of night is never much fun. Sometimes you sit there for hours without a single vehicle approaching. A half hour before the end of curfew three beat up pickup trucks staggered up to the checkpoint with hesitation. Each man behind the wheel was removed from his vehicle and told to wait until the curfew had ended before continuing their journey. Each was seeking the precious fuel that would take them and their trucks to another place.

Fuel is exchanged, bartered, stolen, bought, and sold on every street corner and back alley in Iraq. People fill 50 gallon drums full of it, just to turn around and sell it for a profit. The interpreter was able to glean from conversations with the men that today was fuel day. As the son came up announcing another tentative step in Iraq’s development into a free and democratic society, a mad rush would ensue, as the citizens sought the fuel which would propel them forward. These men were the early birds, breaking curfew in order to get the fuelworm, not wanting to risk the chance of the well running dry.

As the curfew lifted and the men were released, we drove to the north side of town to set up another TCP. The curfew now lifted, trucks carrying the liquid gold appeared in mass. The drivers of these trucks are regularly shot at and sometimes abducted, but they continue driving, determined not to let these armed bandits intimidate them. Trucks of all shapes and sizes, but all carrying some form of fuel, pass through our gates. They are our friends, and we give them safe passage. They drive reckless and fast, causing them to slam on the brakes upon seeing our flashlights and magic glow sticks floating in the air. With the momentum of a runaway locomotive, their brakes strain to slow the weight of their cargo. Their tires screech along the pavement as they try to maintain control over the beasts, sometimes going off road to avoid hitting each other. My position in the humvee just off the road is not a safe place. One truck came careening toward us with such recklessness that the guys forward of me, whose job it is to slow them down, had to jump out of the way, while I prepared to launch myself from the humvee. Fortunately he righted himself, making my flight unnecessary.

The trucks are now steadily flowing from both directions. As I keep a lookout to my front, I hear a splashing sound as some kind of liquid hits the pavement. I turned around to see a tanker truck coming from behind with something flowing from one of its pipes. The fumes are overwhelming as I realize that a lever or pipe has inadvertently been opened, releasing the bubblin’ crude that is held within the tank. You have to be kidding me. This guy is driving the Exxon Valdez down a highway in Iraq, and he doesn’t even know it. He’s passed me before I can signal for him to stop, as the crude continues to paint the gray pavement black. If I had an internet connection, I would have bought oil futures at that moment, knowing this truck might single handedly create a spike in oil prices back home.

The road became slick with oil, making the effort to slow down even harder. As each big truck and vehicle drove by, the tread of their tires threw oil mist into the air, which came to rest in little droplets on us, our clothes and our humvees. Thomas and Chris, ahead of me and closer to the road, walked back to the humvee with their faces and clothes covered in oil droplets. This guy must have released enough oil to make Jed Clampett a billionaire.

Covered in Texas Tea and wanting to leave, we finally get a call over the radio from the Lieutenant. We were to drive over and pick them up. We drove back toward the town, the road now dark black from the oil tanker. We wondered where this oil trail would end as the oil slick road in front of us stretched to the horizon, extending out like a virus, infecting all who tread upon it.

We entered the town, which was bustling with traffic at this early hour. As we were about to take a right onto the road that would lead us to the Killing House, I saw a massive truck hauling double trailers approaching. To my left, on the side of the road, was a small car, waiting for the traffic to subside. The double trailer truck was driving too fast to avoid the truck in front of him that had suddenly stopped. With the mixture of speed, weight, and the oil slick road, the truck began skidding out of control. I looked back quickly enough to see the car still idling on the side of the road, certain I was about to witness a catastrophic wreck. With the sound of his skidding tires now filling my ears, he yanked his wheel to the right to avoid the truck in front of him.

Going off road, the truck now saw the car sitting helplessly and yanked the wheel back to the left. The two trailers now formed a V, with the rear trailer whipping around violently. It somehow remained upright as it struggled to right itself, narrowly missing the car, who had seen the oncoming train and floored the gas to get out of the way. The truck shoots back onto the road, momentarily going into the left lain, before finally settling back down. Damn, these people drive like maniacs.

We left the oil stained highway behind and sped off toward the Killing House. Using my GPS to guide us, the house soon came into view. The Killing House looked anything but. It was a nondescript square stone building with a square cut into each side to serve as windows. It was situated upon the edge of a plateau that ended a hundred feet from the rear of the building.

Between the edge and the house were small ravines, rounded at the top, like folds of skin pressed together. The edge dropped off in a steep descent to an open basin. A small river flowed through the middle, with flat open land bordering both sides for hundreds of yards. The river had cut a path through the land from the time God had rested on the seventh day. The ugliness and madness of the oil spill and out of control trucks made me thankful for the pretty creation that lay before me. Hundreds of sheep contentedly grazed on the vegetation below, adding to the peaceful scene.

The dismounts had detained a couple of men before we got there. These men now sat flexi-cuffed on the ground next to their old Landcruiser. They had three AK’s and 15 full magazines of ammo in the truck with them. The limit is one AK per man and one magazine of ammo. Their excuse made me shake my head in laughter. Apparently they were out hunting falcons. Hunting falcons with AK-47's, wonderful sport. Yeah right. We ended up letting them go after a local mayor drove up and backed up their claim, making the falcons and us a little less safe. How the hell do you hunt birds with an AK-47? Only in Iraq.

As we loaded everyone up to head back to the FOB, I asked Ray what they had found in the House of Killing. He told me the entire house was empty except for a small closet in the back, where they found some human feces. With a tired look on his face, he looked up at me and said, “We’ve renamed it the House of Bullshit.” Maybe a little more accurate description, but equally as silly. I hadn’t seen any bulls grazing nearby.

Sounds nice doesn’t it? Makes you just want to jump on a plane and come visit. I should become the Director of Tourism for Iraq. I could print up some brochures in no time, appealing to sadist adventurers around the world. We could have a Cannonball Run, with people racing up the Iraqi highways. The victor wouldn’t be the one to finish first, no, the victor or victors would be the people who actually finished the trip without getting killed. Or how about a reality TV series documenting each leg of the trip. I’d personally like to see a celebrity race, with everyone from that fat chick from the Dixie Dicks, to that fat man Michael Moore. Did I just say Dixie Dicks, sorry, I meant Dixie Chicks. Actually I meant Dixie Dicks. Who else could participate? Let’s see, Donald Trump would be good. He could make it his last big hurrah before he and his hair hopefully fade from our memories. Paris Hilton, her rat dog, and Lionel Ritchie’s daughter could bring their Simple Life series over here as well. Oprah would be nice, maybe she could walk the entire trip, documenting her weight loss. Hopefully Michael Jackson and his sister could make it. Michael is still a big star over here. He could come here, become solvent, pay his legal bills, and build another Neverland Ranch. Never being the appropriate word, since he will never leave this land. Can you imagine how many fathers with AK-47s would be hunting him down after their son’s came crying to them. Janet could come over and offend every woman in Iraq with her nipple decorations, and offend me with that grating voice of hers. How about Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson’s husband’s. They could come over here and actually make a name for themselves without the presence of their wives. Martha Stewart could cater, although that ankle bracelet might cause some problems with her parole officer. Ben Affleck might also want to come. He could come over and resurrect his non-resurrectable movie career, becoming Iraq’s first B movie star. His movies would go straight to the burned DVD’s that are sold on the streets like all the other pirated movies. Iraq has quickly become the pirated movie capital of the world. I swear you can buy movies over here on the street before they have even begun filming back in the States. I think I saw the seventh installment of Star Wars for sale the other day. In it Luke Skywalker finally admits his sexuality and marries the Wookie. I would even let Jesse Jackson participate. When not racing he could blackmail big companies in Iraq for not hiring blacks, even though there are no blacks in Iraq. Jimmy Carter could come build some houses. Kofi Annan could come to collect some kickbacks he’s still owed from the oil for food program. Sean Penn could come to promote peace, all while getting in fights with anyone who tried to take his picture. John Kerry could come get another Purple Heart. Barbara Streisand and Justin Timberlake could sing Iraq’s national anthem before the race. Justin, I already have a place for you to stay. It’s called the Neverland Ranch. Reporting live for everyone back home would be the dynamic duo of Dan Rather and Katie Couric.


Blogger Tammi said...

Cannonball Race?!?! LOL

You completely nailed that one...funny stuff.

But you forgot a couple: Make Ricky Williams (ex dolphin) in charge of Leisure Activities - that would mellow everyone out, and I don't remember seeing you mention Alec Baldwin? you think you could find something for him to do?! ;-)

10:41 AM  
Blogger Chevy Rose said...

And don't forget Tim Robbins and his wife, Susan Sarandon, They could use the work, I'm sure.

11:50 AM  
Blogger Mr Bob said...

your on fire man. I smell a book deal. but seriously, your story got quite strange at the end there, but I imagine waxing strange in your tales helps you handle it.
Thank you for your service. Make it home safe.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous A Soldiers Mom said...

Keep writing, you are wonderful. I look forward to reading your post's. If you put out a book, I will ceretainly buy it. Stay Safe !!

12:53 PM  
Anonymous stephen said...

WRITE A BOOK. thats all i can say. it would sell so much you could buy iraq with the money and do whatever you please with it.

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most amusing - God bless you and all who serve. I hope your own mom is as eye-rolling amused by you as I am.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this Blog!

I love the idea of a Cannonball Run. In fact, along with the book deal, you should produce "Cannonball Run III" and bull Burt Reynolds out of retirement. The scary part is that you could probably get away with such a race in Iraq!

6:09 PM  
Blogger Al's Girl said...

You left off Sean Penn and Jeanine Garafolo - I'd like to see them doing some actual work to help the Iraqi people instead of just running their mouths.

Stay safe!

9:17 AM  
Anonymous texasnurse said...

OMG i hope that whatever you do wherever you go you never stop writing you weave such scenes with your words I swear my lips were chapped and I smelled burning oil. lol. So funny you are and I will keep reading. I am addicted now. Yours is the only blog I have ever read and I cant stop lol Thank you for what you are doing!!

7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am drawn to your posts every night as if it is a place for me to go and feel close to what my son is enduring in the sandbox with you.
Your words bring to life the experiences you are having and the strong pull on your soul, young man. You have been blessed with this Gift and you will come home to continue your writings.
A Soldiers Mom

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great blog. I was there last year and can attest to what you are going through there. Keep your head down.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Gemini II said...

your humor is too wonderful...

2:05 AM  

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