Floorboards coated with desert sand, the space grows dim and tight as I climb into the passenger seat and the iron door slams shut. Then something unexpected as the Lt. Colonel turns the key and the Humvee’s engine clatters to life — the faint scent of a soldier’s sweat. Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m no clairvoyant, yet I cannot deny the spirit, or whatever you want to call it — ghost, angel, the supernatural presence — of a young soldier rattling about the cab.
I try to shake the dissonance, the vision of mine traps and explosions and young men at war. I turn around in my seat, say something to my young son as he bounces around the backseat touching gadgets and looking out the window, but my voice is lost somewhere between the bullet-stung glass and hardened steel. Unsettled, I turn my attention to the Lt. Colonel on my left. Highly decorated, the Lt. Colonel has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Lt. Colonel has survived war. And yet today he has been gracious enough to grant a 6-year-old boy’s wish to take a ride in a United States Army Humvee. Handsome he is, that Lt. Colonel.
Beyond the river and pock-marred road, the Lt. Colonel steers the Humvee down a country road where tumescent clouds and trees the color of sunlit honey stretch high above our heads — so far (we are) from deserts, so far (we are) from war. I pretend to look out the window, while my eyes really are watching him. Eyes straight ahead, hands strong on the wheel as he steers the Humvee, tires crunching down the gravel road. I have a question, too personal (I think) to ask, best (for now) it stay tangled on my tongue.
We make a turn, and behind me the gunner’s swing sways to and fro, tap-tap-tap, the swing bumps against my shoulder. A chill runs through me. I’m here, right here — try as you might, you can’t ignore me!
For just a moment we three fall silent, and then the sun shines down through a break in the clouds. The question I’m afraid to ask bobs on my lips like a walnut dropped down a wishing well. I like the Lt. Colonel. He is kind. Don’t get me wrong, he has fought wars and won battles and saved many, many lives, although he does not speak of any of this as I’d imagined he might. Indeed, I have to gently rap my knuckles against his bolted door and even then, will he answer? And yet, and yet somehow I know that if I needed to be saved, (for sure) he’d be my man. A giddy thought. For a moment, the woman in me wants to be saved by the Lt. Colonel. Not from war, but from this tender longing. God, I am such a girlie and my hair … so long and curly. I chastise myself when I realize what I’m thinking. The Lt. Colonel is a fine, fine man. And I’m a naughty … Screech. The brakes whine as we come to a halt. I stop, soon as I realize I’ve been caught twirling my hair. He raises one brow and gazes a second too long. My son’s head pops between the seats, grinning. I smile. The Lt. Colonel is a fine man. “Lt. Colonel,” I say.
“Jim,” he corrects me.
“Jim,” I begin again, and then I ask him the question that’s been on my mind ever since I met him. “How do you do it? How does a good man like you survive war?”
Too soon, my ride in the Humvee is over and like a band of squinting wombats we all clamor out of the Humvee into the sunlight. Right then and there, before I even slam shut the heavy iron door I make up my mind to remember my ride in the Humvee and the Lt. Colonel’s humble answer to my question.
Days pass. I don’t forget. Last night I had a dream about a Humvee kicking up a trail of dust across the desert, and in the morning I try not to think about turrets, or young boys who grow up to be soldiers. I try not to think about rifles and war, or how brave the heart of a man to want to serve and protect his country — our country, but that’s just not possible — not since I took a ride in a Humvee.