At the grocery store, picking up a couple of hamhocks and beans for a soup. I find the hamhocks and say to myself as I reach for them, "Whatchoo know about hamhocks and collard greens?"

The stockboy near me perks up and says, "Did you need help with something sir?"

"Nah man, thanks. I was mumbling crazy person shit to myself, but good looking out for the customer in your zone."

I don't tell him about the time I was standing in the line at the grocery checkout. Not the poorest part of Columbus, OH - a single family neighborhood, but the kind of place where you watch your ass and nobody sits on the front porch, ever. It was the closest Kroger to my house, and the only one in the area that had hamhocks. It was also the only one with a kosher deli, but we'll get into that story another time. I'm picking up stuff for a nice batch of collard greens, which means throwing a couple hamhocks or a brick of salt pork in to simmer with fresh greens.

I wasn't always the only white dude in the place, but usually. And I wasn't always the scruffiest in the place, but usually.

I'm standing in line to pay. The lines are starting to back up into and in a couple lanes across the aisle. I was doing some mindfulness exercises in my head, trying to be present, thinking about ribs and collard greens, and all the other shit that flies by when forcibly idle, and someone behind me calls out to me.

They aren't raising their voice, necessarily, but it's definitely a tone of voice that is meant to be heard and understood.

"Whatchoo know about hamhocks and collard greens?"

I don't have to look down into my own hand to remember that I'm carrying a basket full of hamhocks and collard greens, and the voice behind me is tall enough and close enough that they probably have a direct line of sight into my basket from where they're standing in line behind me. I thought about the people standing around me and deduced that the tall, middle aged black female voice was probably talking to the scruffy white guy sticking out like a used Q-Tip in the coffee jar.

I turned around, and directly behind me was a granny standing with the younger woman who'd spoken. The granny looked absolutely mortified. The younger woman was chewing gum and smirking. She wasn't looking to start some shit, she just literally could not help herself from asking.

"Not as much as either of you ladies, but more than it looks like," I said, gave my best genuine friendly smile, and turned back around.

The granny broke first. It took a few seconds. The younger woman, her daughter I suppose, was right on her heels.

I'm standing in EWR waiting for my bags to poop out the chute. I'd spent something like a week in Krakow sitting next to them in the tastefully appointed livingroom of my AirBnB between bouts of acute voluntary pierogitis and long, aimless loops around the city. The Pelicans were Pelicans, bulky but relatively invincible black plastic cases, unmarked and invisible in a truck full of them, but easy to spot among regular human luggage. They came out first, and about halfway through the baggage train, the little rollaway packed with my dirty underwear and a Toughbook that wouldn't fit in the Pelicans.

The whole time I waited and watched, a part of my brain plays the phrase "You can see that sumbitch from the space shuttle."

Basic training was the easiest thing in the world. All I had to do was whatever the people in the funny hats told me to do, and not be the worst at it out of 40 randomly selected jerks.

The last night, all pressure off, all gauntlets run, all evaluations complete, my specific guy in a funny hat told us to pack our shit up according to the prescribed fashion, and to use our laundry markers (one black, one white) to write our names on our identical green duffle bags.

"Write it big, so you can see it from a good distance. Otherwise you're going to be walking around for an hour picking through huge trucks of other peoples' shit when they sling it out in the parking lot or runway."

I knew my TI had been on a good number of deployments and unit TDYs. He was an ejector seat technician, and had chased F-15s around the world for at least 10 years before getting his funny hat. I took him at his word, and put my last name on the side of my green weenie in 10 inch high capitals, white paint marker outlined with a thick black border.

Two days later, I was standing in a bigass parking lot with 500 other jerks who had the same stop I did in the training pipeline. Two very irritable staff sergeants had pulled us out of the stale vinyl interiors of government busses and told us to gaggle up and wait for the baggage trucks. It was dead in the middle of a brutal Texas summer, and we were dead in the middle of an endless sea of scorching black tarmac. The staff sergeants told us to grab our bags when we saw them, but to stay "the fuck out of the way of the guys throwing bags." About fifty bags came off the truck, identical from where we stood, and I was sure I saw heat mirages dancing around the slowly growing columns of bags laid out ass-to-mouth. Soon enough, I saw mine in the hands of the first bag tosser, billboard advertising ownership from ten yards away. I started making my way towards the line of bags before it even left his hands.

"Holy sheeit, you'n see that sumbitch from the space shuttle," one of the sergeants said. His accent said deep Miss-sippy. His tone of voice said he was trying to make fun of whatever idiot put their name on their dufflebag in ten inch, high contrast block letters.

As I passed him on the way to my bag while it was still in motion, I said, unprompted but completely respectfully, "Yes staff sergeant, my TI said to write it big so I wouldn't have to roast my ass walking around trying to find it."

He looked at me a little surprised, but didn't say anything as I got to my bag before it even hit the deck, taking it right from the hands of the guy who was about to fling it the ten feet to the head of the column he was building.

I sat in the air conditioning of the processing building for an hour and a half while everyone else trickled in by ones and twos. The staff sergeants were the last two in, and the one who'd talked shit about my bag pointed at me and called me the smartest man in the US Government.

I was sitting on a milk crate in the narrow walkway between the kitchen and the walk-in cooler and freezer. It was dark, slivers of light peeking through the gaps where the back door had been jimmied open a thousand times, and it was quiet except for the hum of the refrigeration units. I had forty five minutes to kill before the doors even opened, and on a weekday it would probably be another hour before the first customer even showed up. The combination of narrow space, lighting, and low hum reminded me exactly of

The small fleet of King Airs were unremarkable from the outside, plain factory paint jobs and standard tail numbers. The interiors were completely featureless tubes of grey military plastic and vinyl, with nothing but two small consoles on either end of the tube for the camera operator and the mission operator. I was the latter, sitting aft in the tube, hunched over a laptop connected to a pair of featureless black rackmount boxes lashed to the cargo track that ran down the centerline of the tube. The two small windows in the tube were covered by crooked plastic covers held on with beads of aged Velcro. The harsh afternoon sun over the Hindu Kush peeked through the gaps, and there was nothing but the hum of the engines and the occasional crackle on one of the several radio channels I was sitting on. Nothing to do but wait - either for the assault channel to crackle to life with questions or instructions, or for my gear to make one of the beeps, chirps, or squawks that alerted me to something of interest.

The camera operator was famous for not saying a fucking word except what was required by procedure or circumstance. The flight deck, no matter who they were on a given mission, stayed the fuck off my intercom except for the same. I might as well have been alone, waiting for someone to tell me it was time to do more than stare and breathe. Waiting for someone to tell me it was time to do the dance and watch some dumb bastard get rolled up, or maybe some even dumber bastard get vaporized by a Hellfire, or maybe the dumbest bastard in the world at that moment get chased around a poppy field by a couple of 30mm chain guns.

"Hey! Dickhead!"

The bartender, a squat, bald cretin who'd flashed a tiny Aryan Brotherhood pick and poke at me the first time I'd met him, was standing in the threshold between my milk crate and the kitchen.

"Are you fucking nodding off back here? There's three tickets hanging off your printer, get to it."

I stood up and watched him fumble in his pocket for what he thought was a discrete bump of coke the color of yellow teeth. I dropped two baskets and loaded the flat top while I tried to accept that two hours had disappeared without a trace.

The little red Kia had been riding my ass for a couple miles, flashing lights and liberally applying the horn. I was doing the speed limit on a twisty section of local through road, and had never seen the car before. Out of towners, I noted, not able to see their plate numbers below the line of sight in my rearview but having glimpsed enough of it to know they were registered in Massachusetts. Increasingly irritated at the kid, I considered brake checking him, but thought better of it even though I figured I could probably total the little plastic turd for the cost of half a can of spraypaint on my own pig. They were close enough to the shackle hitch on my armored bumper that I could count the hairs on the shitty little goatee the driver was sporting, but not quite close enough for me to read the logo on the passenger kid's obnoxiously cocked flat brim ballcap. We hit a series of blind curves, and the driver floored it to pass me on the outside of a curve I've seen a dozen accidents on.

The kid slammed back into the lane with just a whisker between us and slammed on the brakes. Something inside me needed to come out as an inarticulate scream, so I let it. I felt the adrenaline dump, and suddenly felt myself watching myself take the truck through a preprogrammed evasive maneuver, stealing precious space on the narrow shoulder, one big toe on each pedal, adjusting the nose to shove past them on the right with intentional contact on the right front wheel of the Kia to toss them leftwards, and with any luck sideways, into the oncoming lane while I shot a tight line along the inside curve.

Somewhen else, in North Kabul out past the firewood sellers and not quite to the stripped out Soviet APC, a little gold Corolla rode my ass, flashing and honking, and pulled the same maneuver. State Department rolled in the same uparmored Land Cruisers we did, and were notorious for making all of us targets by stopping for every accident they were caught up in and paying go money.

We, however, didn't stop for anything that was possible to go over, through, or around, and we didn't pay except as a last resort, and even then only in M855. I slammed the brakes, cranked down a gear, and flipped over onto the shoulder with feet to spare between my armored bumper and some poor soul standing in the mud with wader boots and an ancient air compressor. Juking around the Corolla and finding a gap four cars up, I jumped back into the lane of travel as the muscle in the back seat did a weapons check. The one on the driver's side craned around to keep eyes on the Corolla as it jockeyed in the narrow lanes to catch us, and the one on the passenger's side went eyes forward to look for an ambush we might be getting shooed into.

We dueled in traffic for almost ten clicks. The passenger's seat called ahead to gate security at the partner facility we were speeding towards. The facility in question was accessible only via a very long and heavily fortified frontage road, 300 meters of cement-walled funnel to deal with any unexpected visitors. As soon as we hit the exit and entered the funnel, the Corolla peeled off. Absolutely nobody in a thousand kilometer radius wanted anything to do with the heat I was having a friendly meeting with.

I mentioned the incident to my local friend after we parked and made our way up to his office.

"Gold Corolla, Kandahar plates. Some kind of black vinyl decals on the sides, English words in fancy script. Three men and one burqa in the backseat."

He put out an APB to local forces, and later that day he let me know they'd rolled them up at a checkpoint.

"We have them," he'd said. "Three men and one woman."

He gestured for the tea boy to refill me.

"What do you want us to do with them?"

"Well, I assume you've already run their IDs," I mumbled, sipping the fresh tea and shoveling a handful of nuqul into my head. "Any of them known?"

He shook his head. "They have still committed a serious crime. They are fully under our authority."

"Good," I nodded, crunching on the candied almonds. "Don't hurt them, but scare the shit out of them. For their own good."

He smiled a perfectly affable smile, the same smile he gave when others might laugh, but the sparkle in his eyes was as of a dark flame behind frozen glass.

"This," he said, "We can do very well, as you know. There are some junior officers who need the experience."

In the now, the Kia came off the brakes in the heartbeat before I committed to wrecking their shit, so I stabbed the brakes a few times in quick succession to let them pull ahead and give me room to maneuver again if I needed to. I watched them zap through town with middle fingers out each window and automatically took note of the plate numbers. I had a good idea of where they were headed - one of the millionaire mansions kept by out of towners on a private dirt road just past home.

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