Saturday, October 1, 2016

An Old Job

Summer 1993, Colorado. I am camped high in the Rocky Mountains with a coworker, P.M. P's a salty older guy, ex-Navy, and it only takes one look at him to see "spook" written all over his face. We work together on an aerospace defense contract but that weekend is all about fun. P's already dragged my sorry ass which is 30 years younger than his all over various drainages that evening showing me "his elk." P's basically giving me his old hunting area which unknown to me will become my stomping ground for nearly the next 20 years of my life.

Camp is meager. We have eaten and I build a small fire in a one foot diameter hole that I just dug up. I laid my pad and sleeping bag out and and proceed to get comfortable as I feed small pieces of fuel into the flames.

P who doesn't really talk a lot out of nowhere just says, "sort of reminds you of sitting over pile of burning yak shit in Afghanistan, eh?"

I am sure he can see that all of the color has washed out my face as I stare back at him blankly and begin to recall an earlier day...

In my entire life I had never seen so many stars in the sky. There was no moon which made the stars even more brilliant above the stark and barren landscape. "Mars" I thought to  myself. "This is what Mars must look like."

Well except for the goats which would randomly bleat in the night. Unless of course Mars has goats.

It was late in the year, early winter 1988 and "the team" was well within the borders of Afghanistan. The Soviets had already began their exit from the country but there was still a strong presence there.

Regardless, it was a lot easier to move around the countryside watching and observing.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided a cornucopia of intelligence and information for our country to assess their forces. For nearly a decade "we" got to watch them play war (and lose) and subsequently catch hell from the Mujaheddin. It allowed for honest assessments of troop strengths, weapons technology, tactics, and wartime doctrine. A lot of information "walked" out of Afghanistan on its own accord but sometimes, well sometimes, we had to go in and get it.

We had been in-country for three days marching towards our objective. Our herd of more or less 20 tame goats were our cover. Five seemingly unarmed men with a herd of goats in those remote regions would barely raise any concern if viewed from afar. The goats provided cover, served as sentries at night and well, to be honest... a meal or two.

It was about an hour before sunup as the team was concealed within a pocket of boulders backed by a cliff. I was on post allowing everyone else to sleep and I was freezing my ass off. I could feel the wooden stock of the Dragunov just sucking any and all of the heat out of my hands though my wool gloves. A goat was moving and apparently kicked a rock causing me to jump. Damn I was going to be glad when that night was over and I could get some sleep before we started moving again. I was so tired that I was staring to feel nauseous and buzzy in the head but it was worth it to allow the rest of the team rest.

Steve, our team leader finally roused a bit earlier than usual and moved over to where I was sitting and told me to catch some Z's. He and I had only been working together for a year and though he was only four years older than me chronologically, he had been in the game long enough to appear to everyone as the seasoned and wise old pro that he was. We switched positions and I climbed back into the rocks and crawled under my blanket and easily slipped into a deep and dreamless slumber.

The job was really an easy one as jobs go. Our team was to meet a Soviet Air Force officer who was "retiring early" as it were, defecting actually, and we were to escort him out. Easy right? A small invading force of five, in a country invaded by a much larger force, helping one of them leave, get across to a safe border, and to do all of this undetected, caught or killed. 

The getting killed part really never bothered me. For starters, being so young my mortality was not something that I had yet to experience. For me it was about the dying in a place where I technically wasn't. But it is a really strange sensation being somewhere you aren't suppose to be, should be or could be on so many levels. No ID's, no papers, nothing that would or could betray the origins of our little band of merry makers. In a sense, we were nobodies and non-existent.

Steve came over and kicked my boot letting me know it was time to get up and go. Someone had put together and managed to cook a huge pot of oatmeal so I was lucky enough to get the leftovers and down about half a canteen of water before we started moving. Fortunately we were only a few hours from the meeting point and an easy walk with the only real challenge being keeping all of those damned goats in order and at least give the appearance this wasn't our first time as goat herders. 

Again the thing about the terrain was just how bleak it was. Yes there were mountains but almost in a way everything seemed prehistoric. Even worse for me was the fact that it all just looked the same.  Boulder, boulder, boulder, sand, dirt, dry stream bed, boulder, boulder, sand, dirt, dry stream bed...

When we finally found our stopping point, I really had to look around because I could have sworn it was the same damned place we started from just three hours earlier!

We set up trying to look like just what we were trying to look like except for Josh who tucked himself up higher with the Bren SAW with that ridiculous damned magazine sticking out the top end of the receiver. When it got closer to show time I would be up in the rocks with him behind my Dragunov to increase our odds if anything hinky happened and to put us at some tactical advantage if we needed it.

Fortunately, that never became necessary.

Soviets... Russians... I swear I have never met a more dramatic, passionate, romantic, and in a weird way almost flamboyant bunch of people. Because bigger than shit from across the valley and headed straight towards us, wearing what we would call his Class A's or full dress uniform, and on a damned white as the virgin snow horse that anyone can see for 1000 miles in this god forsaken landscape is our man coming right towards us.

So much for subtlety...

All of us were speechless until he arrived. Each of us looking at each other in total disbelief. Can this really be happening? I mean the guy on a horse I understand but fucking white? And what is with the uniform? Damn. I am looking at the sky expecting to see helicopters, Hinds, at any minute circling above our pos.

The rider finally arrives among us and Lou who is our best linguist starts interrogating him. Mostly because I am damned sure Lou wants to know just as much as the rest of us just what the hell this joker was thinking. Secondly, because none of the rest of us can speak Russian worth a damned and then only enough to really insult someone's mother. Not very useful in the current situation.

Lou and the rider (a Colonel) talk back and forth then both burst out laughing. Now we are really confused. Lou senses this and turns to the team and explains that the base where the Colonel rode from had a military parade that morning, hence the horse and the dress uniform. After the parade the Colonel had told his aide that he was going for a ride outside the fence and would be back later. 

After thinking about it for a second, it actually seemed rather smart really.

We unmounted our new ward and sent the horse off running in another direction. We had a change of clothes for him and after collecting his uniform to burned later we began on our way.

It took three and a half days for us to get in but we were going to be taking a much faster approach to getting back across the border and to safety. Two days at a double time march pretty much while all the time hoping the damned goats can keep up. Eventually we would kick them loose but they still had their part to do. 

The Colonel proved to be rather fit and didn't have any problems keeping up. He and Lou stayed together side by side in the middle of the group in case there had to be any hasty communications.

Once we crossed the border there was a group waiting for us as well as two trucks. Some nondescript man in a burgundy wind breaker greeted the Colonel and they went into one truck while the five of us climbed into the other for the long drive followed by even a longer flight back to Germany followed by a few well earned days off.
I turned away from P and tossed another stick into the fire while feeling my pulse drop a few beats and just said to him, "I don't know what you mean..."

"Good night..."

Note: The camping scene in 1993 happened... as for the rest...