“Medic! Medic! Help me, Medic!” The man’s voice screamed from the Bose sound system installed in the makeshift movie room of forward base Zulu in Mosul, Iraq. I don’t know why the other enlisted men were so enthralled by war movies and their crackerbox heroes. It’s all fake warfare staged in some Hollywood studio far removed from the dreadful death ballet of actual combat. Fake! Why watch this shit when we were living the real thing? I’ve been scooping the remnants of men from the combat zone for 10 months now and, no, they don’t call for a medic when they are injured and dying. They call for their mothers or their wives, and most of the time, for God to help them. The carnage, the heat, the noise and long distance separating me from my family was getting to me. The fact that I signed up for this crap only made things worse.
I left the movie room and stood outside in the red-hot desert heat, the hot air violently attacking my lungs as I inhaled to produce a weary sigh. It’s twenty hundred hours and it’s still 110 degrees. They tell me that this is Babylonia, the cradle of God’s empire. I asked myself why anyone would want to live in this scorching heat, and how the hell could there be a Garden of Eden in this infertile land? Plopping down on an old dilapidated office chair sitting on the dirt colored sand, I looked intently at my surroundings. God had painted his sky a purple infused with crimson on his deep blue canvas, which was strikingly gorgeous. The landscape was an awe-inspiring blanket of seemingly infinite sand dunes in which craggy, wind-beaten rocks shyly poked out, another testament to his work. The beauty of the desert forged a confirmation of the land’s biblical history.
Our shift started at midnight, in four hours, and I had to get some shut-eye. As I walked back to my barracks, I scanned the tarmac of the flight line. Through the heat waves which radiated off the sun-baked terrain, the flight maintenance crews looked like ghostly brown-suited cherubs as they worked feverishly preparing the Blackhawk helicopters that served as our workhorses in the evil darkness of the battlefield. On their backs, we would bring the twisted, burnt, shot and torn bodies from the torment of war. As I removed my gaze form the iron birds I saw a figure running toward me, it was Medic Private First Class Bishop.
Medic Bishop was my pain in the ass. He reminded me of my little bothersome brother back home in California. They even shared the same first name: Shawn. However, unlike my brother who spelled his name S-E-A-N, not S-H-A-W-N, Medic Bishop was officially my subordinate. He had one of those pale faces that turns bright red in the sun and always look worried. On his wiry frame sat his loose-fitting uniform that invariably had huge, disgusting sweat rings under the arms.
“Sir, sir,” Private Bishop yelped as he hurried to catch up with me.
“Hey, what’s up?” I answered.
“I just got off the flight line and all of the trauma kits are restocked,” he beamed with relish, wanting me to recognize that he had finished his duties early. “Can I go on one of tonight’s missions?”
This was always the case with the new guys, they wanted in on the action. And Bishop was one of them, only having been in the country for five weeks. He was so anxious to save lives that he rushed through his restocking of the rescue birds so he could beg for a ride into the entrails of human suffering.
“You sure you got everything done and all the med equipment checked out and stowed?” I asked.
“All done, sir!” he blurted out almost before I could finish my sentence.
“All right, you’re in. Be on the flight line at eleven hundred hours. And wear your flack jacket and helmet. We’re going North tonight and the guys on the ground are on the offensive. That means we’ll be busy. Go get a few hours of sleep; you’re going to need it.”
A wide smile stretched across Private Bishop’s face as he turned and ran toward the sweltering tents that were our barracks. I followed, making my way toward the conditioned air that would afford me some needed rest.
In the corner of the barracks, the men were playing the Call of Duty video game on an X-Box. War movies, war games, you would think that these men would have enough death and destruction in their lives. Shaking my head with the thoughts of war, I took my desert cammies off and laid down on my cot wearing only my underwear. I knew that I was not going to get any sleep. I closed my eyes and thought about my brother Sean and better times when I used to engulf myself into video games like the soldiers in the corner of the tent. Soon my mind wandered back home to the summer of 1980.
Summer was in full swing, and the smell of freshly cut grass crept through the screen-less front windows of our duplex. The distant sound of cawing blue jays tickled the air. Their ravenous shrieks were an ominous warning to our disregard of nature at the dawn of the digital age.
“It’s my turn,” said Sean. “You never let me play.”
“Because you suck and you die fast. Why do you always have to play when I want to play?” I told my little brother.
“Mom bought the game for both of us,” he replied.
“I don’t give a fuck, get out of here, and leave me alone—you keep getting me killed, asshole,” I retorted.
“Oooh, I’m telling Mom,” said Sean. “I’m telling that you said ‘fuck’ and won’t let me play Atari.”
Sean’s chubby little feet hastily headed for the telephone. He intended to call my mom at her job and tell on me for the umpteenth time that sugary summer. I don’t know how our mother was able to keep her job while receiving the thousands of phone calls that we made to her every summer when we’re out of school. She worked for a defense contractor in Silicon Valley for as long as I could remember and her job provided the only income to our house of three. I beat him to the phone that morning, unplugged it, and sat it down next to the chair I had posted in front of the television.
“Give me the phone back,” said Sean.
“No! I’ll let you play after I finish this game—just shut up and don’t bug me,” I said.
“You ain’t never gonna finish the game—you keep dying too,” said Sean.
“See, that’s why I don’t let you play, you’re always bugging me,” I said.
“So,” said my brother, happy with having said the last word.
I knew that eventually, later in the day, I was going to have to kick his ass, especially if he kept on bugging me. Beating on my brother didn’t do much but get me into trouble with my mom. I never really hurt him; he seemed impervious to my maltreatment. Plus, I never really beat him up as much as I pushed him around and bullied him. Our fights were always wrestling matches or pulled punches in the arm on my part. When I was really pissed—or feeling exceptionally cruel—I resorted to my favorite punishment for my annoying little brother, the paralyzing Charlie Horse.
With Mom at work, and it being summer, we had no adult supervision for most of the day, and we used the time play Space Invaders or to roam our neighborhood like a pair of curious raccoons. We stayed just enough out of trouble to keep out of our mom’s wrath. The phone calls to her job sometimes resulted in a licking when Mom came home, but at fourteen and twelve years old, our mom’s battering didn’t hurt us physically as much as it did mentally. She worked hard and we did not like to get her upset. Slowly we learned to stop snitching on each other and run our lives as best we could while she was at work.
Our petite living room sat at the front of our two bedroom duplex. Our furniture was old, 60s era stuff that had been twice reupholstered. The couch, table, and loveseat were expertly built and unyielding. Everything my mother owned had to be virtually kid proof. The brown shag carpet had years of our grime ground into murky paths from the front door to the hallway leading to the kitchen. Even the bi-annual carpet cleaning could not remove the creek mud, bicycle grease, grass stains, and other grunge that we tracked in. And it wasn’t just my brother and I who were responsible for the damage done to our mother’s home. A troop of neighborhood friends helped. Though our living room was sparse, our mother did her best with what she had and decorated it with plants and kid-resistant knickknacks to give it a homey feeling.
That summer the newest additions to our living room furniture were two “bionic chairs” my brother and I had received the previous Christmas. The chairs were ugly, but comfortable. Upholstered in brown vinyl, the legless chairs sat on the floor, looking more as if they belonged in a car then anything you would see in home furnishings. These chairs were our treasures serving as seats for hours of persistent video game playing.
“It’s my turn now—you died twice already,” said Sean, sitting in his bionic chair next to mine.
Sean was trying to be quiet so I didn’t blame him for getting killed in the video game, which gave me the automatic right to reset the game and try again without giving him a turn.
“All right, for Christ sake. Here!” I said, tossing him the game controller. “It’s your turn, dummy.”
I got up and went and sat on the couch and watched my brother pass level after level, killing the little space invaders with surprising skill. The television speakers boomed with the electronic “dun-dun, dun-dun,” rhythm increasing as he obliterated each alien off the screen. I loathed the fact that he was getting good at the game. Sean copied my strategy. As we sat transfixed on the Atari game, Boy Cat strutted into the room.
I’m not sure how Boy Cat got his name, other than that he was a male, but it was all we knew our infrequently visiting pet by. Boy Cat was a grey tabby tomcat. He was a ferocious alley fighter with combat wounds jacketing his muscular frame. Perched on top of his overly large, battle-scarred head sat one shredded ear above two emerald streetwise eyes. It was not unusual for him to be gone for days and sometimes even weeks before he came home to heal from one of his street battles, or eat when his hunting or dumpster diving did not provide enough sustenance to keep him on the prowl. Sometimes he returned with his leathery grey fur coat matted with blood and filth from his roaming treks throughout his violent territory. Even his meow was rough; it did not sound like a cat’s meow, but something between a rattle and a bottomless growl. Boy Cat also had an unpleasant, foul-smelling method of marking his possessions, which included Mom’s furniture. With all of his imperfections, we loved him just the same.
“Here, kitty,” I called to Boy Cat as he entered the room.
Hearing me, he hastily altered his path in my direction. When he got to the edge of the couch, he changed from ghetto swagger to a sideways, playful dance, stretching his body to my waiting hand to collect a soft stroke. My fingers softly passed over his wiry fur colliding with the Braille-like bumps of scar tissue. Boy Cat returned my tender caress by greeting me with a joyful growl, which was barely audible above the electronic sound of the video game. It was always the same when our cat returned home: he would show us his love and soon he would mark something in the room as his.
Boy Cat departed my hand, returning to his swagger, and headed toward my brother, who was lost in the thrill of Atari carnage in his bionic chair. I watched in shocked fascination as Boy Cat backed up to Sean, his tail quivering in spastic bursts as he marked my brother the same way he marked my mother’s furniture.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” roared my brother, realizing that he’d just been sprayed with cat piss. Boy Cat, hearing my brother’s heated protest, swiftly bolted from the room and headed for the laundry room, his portal to the outside world. Just behind our cat was Sean, yelling obscenities. I damn near fell of the couch I was laughing so hard.
“Ha, Boy Cat just pissed on you,” I joyously yelled to him. “You’re a piss pot. Why don’t you call Mom and tell on Boy Cat!”
Sean returned from his futile cat chase back to the living room with a towel in his hand. The smell of putrid eucalyptus wafted in with him.
“It’s not funny,” my brother said, grinning, trying not to show me that he thought it was just as funny as I did.
“That towel ain’t gonna do shit, you need to take a shower or you’re gonna smell like cat piss all week,” I told him.
Sean headed to the shower and Boy Cat disappeared back into the neighborhood.
In the weeks following, I relentlessly teased my brother. Anyone and everyone we came across had to hear the story of how Boy Cat had pissed on my brother. And as I retold the story my brother always laughed. Sean knew that Boy Cat sprayed him because he loved him. Nasty as it was, it was our cat’s way of letting us know that we belonged to him.
The day we found Boy Cat’s body, we were returning from an adventure at the creek. In the summer, the creek had a steady trickle of silvery water, which flowed through tree-lined banks of oak and maple. The current had perversely twisted the trees and foliage, and strewn them with refuse carried downstream. In wintertime, the rain-swollen creek transformed into the monstrous Guadalupe River, a raging torrent. In the refuse, we hunted for old tennis balls, gnarled driftwood we could turn into walking sticks and any other articles we deemed worthy treasures. As we were heading for home that day, our shoes and clothes were covered in stinking, black mire as we ambled down bright Regent Street. Sean was the first to see the body. Underneath a primer-colored, early model Chevrolet sedan lay our beloved cat, partially decomposed and almost flat. It looked like he had been run over by a bus. His skull had been crushed and his carcass was eviscerated from the extreme pressure of the vehicle tires that killed him. My brother and I stood horrified at the sight.
“Boy Cat,” my brother managed to murmur. “It’s Boy Cat.”
“Yep, it’s him,” I confirmed, not knowing what else to say.
“We got to give him a proper burial,” my brother replied as I watched the tears start to stream down his chubby cheeks.
“Yeah,” I said, accepting the wisdom of Sean’s words.
It hurt me to see our cat squished and dead. I wanted to cry too, but I would not let anyone see me cry over a cat. I thought I was too cool for that. Instead, I walked home sulking, my head down, my spirits wrecked. At home, I gathered an old shovel and a garbage can lid from the side of our house and returned to Regent Street to collect Boy Cat.
I pushed the shovel under the remains and pulled the sticky bulk of it back toward me. I set the wreckage on the garbage can lid and used the shovel a second time to collect his reeking insides. It smelled awful. He looked awful. The unpleasant buzzing of flies sizzled in my ears like an angry storm, stripping away my remaining composure. I had to get out of there before I fell apart. Distraught, I left the shovel behind and grabbed the garbage can lid on both sides, holding it waist level as I slowly walked home. I took Boy Cat to our back yard where I met my brother.
“Where’re ya gonna bury him,” my solemn-faced brother asked.
“I guess I’ll dig a hole back by the fence,” I said.
“We gotta read something from the Bible,” said Sean. “I’ll go get the Bible Tante gave me.”
“Yeah, all right, I gotta go back and get the shovel,” I said. “I left it over by the car on Regent Street.”
As I walked back to Regent Street, I couldn’t help but think about how my brother had so much compassion for the cat that had pissed on him weeks earlier. Sure I was sad, but the whole kitty funeral that my brother had in mind bewildered me. I, of course, would go along with it because I loved the cat just as much as my brother did and it probably was the right thing to do. Neither of us called Mom at work to tell her that our cat was dead and that we were having a funeral in our back yard.
After I retrieved the shovel, I dug a two-foot hole in the back yard. It didn’t take me long to dig through the soft California loam. The digging calmed my broken heart. I brought the garbage can lid over to the edge of the grave and set it down. My brother gloomily stood next to me holding his King James Bible.
“What are you going to read?” I asked my brother, already knowing what he would choose.
“I’m gonna read John 3:16,” Sean told me.
“All right then, go ahead,” I said.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” my brother optimistically read from the small print on the page.
My brother’s words had him choked up and I was not too far behind him. I just wanted to get the carcass into the hole before I started tearing up. When my brother was finished, I unceremoniously dumped the contents of the garbage can lid into the hole.
“Be nice,” my brother said in protest.
“He’s dead; it’s only his body in the hole. Maybe if we bury him with this battery I found he will come back to life,” I retorted, as I threw a D-cell battery I had found earlier in the day at the creek into the hole with our dead cat.
“That’s not funny,” my brother snapped. “He’s going to heaven to be with Jesus.”
I started to fill the hole with dirt. In a few minutes, we were done with Boy Cat’s funeral.
Weeks went by and we pushed Boy Cat and his agonizing death from our young consciousness. We were back at our customary summer routine. We played video games, we argued and we went on more expeditions to the creek. The astonishing shock came while we were home playing video games in the living room a few weeks after Boy Cat’s funeral. Sean looked like he’d seen a ghost. He stood paralyzed, mouth agape, his shaking hand pointing at the cat entering into the room with its confident strut.
“It’s Boy Cat, he’s back from the dead!” he shrieked.
“Holy shit!” I yelled. “Either the battery worked or we buried the wrong cat.”
That summer we had buried a cat that appeared to be ours. The tangled mess we buried was a grey tabby cat, but not our prized Boy Cat. Our innocent minds never got past the physical traits of the dead cat. We should have known that Boy Cat was too tough to die.
The PA system in the barracks shrieked, starling me from my catnap. Looking at my watch I realized that I was more than daydreaming, I had been down for a little over two hours. Shit! I had to get out on the flight line and prepare my people for our nighttime mission to retrieve our wounded soldiers.
As I arrived on the flight line, I noticed the door gunner on the lead Blackhawk carrying two cans of machine-gun ammo. I didn’t know his name; the regular guys didn’t bunk with us medics and we kept our distance. The guy was a mass of aggression who—even though carrying 150 pounds of ammo—walked with the confident swagger of a warrior. This was one tough son-of-a-bitch. Half of his face and both hands bore the scars of some sort of a blaze. He was in his element.
“Extra ammo?” I asked as I met the gunner at the door of the helicopter.
“Yep, they tell me it may be hot tonight and I want to be prepared,” he said with an ominous grin.
My mind went to the scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket where the helicopter gunner was shooting innocent civilians while yelling, “Get some!”
Medic Bishop interrupted my thoughts.
“Which bird ya want me in, sir?
“You’re with me in the lead Blackhawk,” I told the eager soldier with his face painted black with a camouflage stick.
The wait was always the worst part. We sat on the pitch-black tarmac waiting to hear from the guys on the ground that they had casualties. It was strange to me that we not only picked up our people, but also the enemy combatants. War was nothing like the movies.
When the call came, the entire flight line came alive into an organized chaos. I loaded Bishop and myself into the darkened cavern of the bird. I looked around and did a quick inventory of our gear; everything looked to be in order. The searing atmosphere in the helicopter smelled of exhaust, sweat and fear. As the jet-powered turbines started to hack through the desert air, the noise was deafening. Everything started to shudder in an untamed vibration that always brought my nerves on end, as the pilot powered up the outrageously expensive piece of equipment. A few minutes later we were soaring North over the Iraqi desert, insanely near to the ground.
“ETA 27 minutes to the landing zone,” the pilot’s voice reverberated through the comm. headgear.
This’ll be simple, I thought. Just like the summer day that I scooped our family cat off of the ground 30 years ago. Usually our missions were cut and dried: pick up the wounded, keep them alive and deliver them to the surgeons back at Zulu. On occasions, the enemy would take potshots at us but it never resulted in anything too serious.
“ETA 2 minutes,” the headphones alerted.
When we hit the ground, dust clouds billowed up and the smell of cordite permeated the battle-laden night. Litters carrying the injured materialized out of the grimy darkness toward the three birds that touched down. Everything was orderly. Even Medic Bishop was performing like a veteran. The wounded were loaded, the soldiers who carried them disappeared into the night, and we lifted off.
An improvised explosive had hit the casualty in our care. His body was a mess, but he was alive and we planned to keep him that way. Bishop hovered over the injured man, taking vitals and broadcasting them over the comm. to the surgery unit, waiting for our arrival. As I took my Kevlar helmet off I saw a flash on the horizon about 300 meters to the left of the open door. The tomcat operating the machine gun saw it too.
The door gunner opened up on the hillside where the flash had come from. Three more flashes and the inside of our bird exploded. This is okay, I thought as I regained my sense of awareness after the blast. Thank God we are still flying, we didn’t get shot down.
On the floor lay the gunner, his right had still grasping the gun as it fired aimlessly into the night sky. I was on him, removing what was left of the uniform covering his chest. His left arm was missing and he was losing blood fast. Bishop handed me the tourniquet before I could ask him for it. As I stopped the bleeding and the smoke cleared, I looked around and the only damage was to the man who’d grinned at me hours before. The battle-hardened man looked up at me and I saw Boy Cat’s green eyes staring back at me.