I've taken up smoking. Why, you ask, would I do something so stupid? The short answer is: because I am a very stupid person.
Sometimes I need an edge, that's why. Sometimes, caffeine and sugar just aren't enough. Because sometimes lives depend on my alertness, my vigilance, my ability to perform.
Lung cancer seems like a very distant threat compared to the anti-tank mine that hit the vehicle in front of ours last night, blowing off two of its wheels and cracking its hull. It left a crater five feet deep and eight feet wide. I chain-smoked seven cigarettes, not because I was particularly rattled, but because it seemed like a thing to do. No one was hurt too badly; a broken ankle here, a sprained wrist there, a couple of brain contusions perhaps. Inexpensive Purple Hearts, compared to the guy in Red Platoon who took shrapnel from an IED to the face, that took his ear nearly clean off, and lodged in his sinus cavity and brain. Even he's going to be ok, though.
I turned 23 the other day. To celebrate, I smoked a couple of cigarettes and, from atop the Haditha Dam, watched distant lightning across the reservoir, with the sound of lapping water in my ears.
I watched the stars come out for a while, savoring it because we were standing by for another mission.
I looked up at Polaris, the North Star, whose significance became clear to me on that final night of the Desert Survival Course a few months back, when, separated from the guy with the GPS unit, I discovered I could navigate by looking to the sky.
Since that night, I've been trying to learn constellations. The Big and Little Dippers are easy, and familiar from childhood. There, in the same neighborhood are what I think of as the Clash of the Titans constellations (you remember that old movie with the claymation Medusa and the clockwork owl). That misshapen 'M' is the Queen, Cassiopeia, and next to her, the King, Cephus. Their daughter, Andromeda, whom they sacrificed to the sea monster, and the Hero, Perseus, flying in atop Pegasus to save her.
In some of the constellations, you can actually kind of make out what the Greeks saw. Pegasus' torso, for example, and his head and forelegs. Orion with his belt, sheathed dagger hanging, his shield ready in front of him and his spear arm reaching back, poised for the kill.
Babylon's not far from here, it occurs to me, and these were the stars those Babylonians sought to reach with their tower. What would they think of this dam, I wonder, as overtly defiant of nature as it is? Really, the dam impresses even me. And it affords quite a view. The reservoir is big enough that at night I can pretend it's the ocean, or I can walk to the other side and look for patrol boats on the Euphrates, stretching away ten stories below.
Being here conjures up all kinds of weird images. I see boys tending their flocks and I think of a young David, or Daoud as he's known here, with his harp and his sling, keeping his bearings at night, perhaps, by this celestial panorama. Maybe had the the Exodus generation of Hebrews learned their stars better, they wouldn't have had to wander the desert for forty years, chasing around a pillar of fire.
The water reminds me of home and sometimes I am terribly lonely and homesick. Sometimes I just hate this country, and all its stupid people. Sometimes I completely fail to connect on any level with my fellow Marines. Sometimes I am exhausted, physically and mentally, and I am conscious and ambulatory only because of all the caffeine and nicotine coursing through my bloodstream.
At times like this, my bones vibrating and my mind numb, it's all I can do to remember why I am here. I try to imagine my friends' and family's faces, and hope for their safety.
Sometimes I turn to the North and find Draco, the Dragon, curving out from between the two Dippers. I breathe smoke as if I, too, am a dragon, and I beg him to deliver a message to the other side of the world for me.
If you ever find yourself outside on a clear, moonless night, glance Northward, look for that arching figure, and know that out of his gaping maw spew forth all my best wishes.