A Minnesota PBS Initiative
Curlicues of Iron and Smoke (Horn of Africa 2006)
The "Horn is as well as can be expected ("In Africa, what is true at first light is a lie by noon" E. Hem..) and I am better than might be expected, no illness, no injury, no overdue books or debts.
It is not so bad, Arthur Rimbaud spent 20 years here and it only cost him a leg (the syphilis was, I believe, a pre-existing condition). The heat while bordering on the intolerable is a good excuse for inactivity: while extremes of cold demand the opposite. Camp Lemonier, constructed around the bones of the former French Foreign Legion base, is much like those outposts in (the Horn of..?) Antarctica, the heat and light here, as is the cold and dark there, an enemy.
Two thirds of the camp is large double walled tents each with its own giant air conditioner, ten to twelve people live inside, separated by plywood dividers and sheets or ponchos. There are mattressed cots and narrow wall lockers. It is as Helen said like ice fishing for a year.
Because all but the leadership are on shifts the tents are always darkened and the residents move around in them like spelunkers with headlamps and by feel.
Bathrooms are in trailers at the end of each row, The Female units are separate, The KBR site is similar but on the other side of the camp. Many of the KBR employees are from the Balkans or central Europe.
The rest are Sunbelt transients. America's economic nomads ("Mother Courage's misbegotten descendants") Senior Officers and senior NCOs live in CLUs (Containerized Living Units). Which are in fact shipping containers neatly modified and configured with sinks, toilets and showers, the walls and ceilings insulated and paneled and the floors linoleum, about 8 feet by 24, with a door, window and a/c unit they are quite and comfortable. I have such a unit. There are 2 dining facilities (one runs 24/7); an air-conditioned gym, a 100 seat Movie theatre, a Cantina ('one team, one fight, three beers") a coffee shop, PX and library.
After 3 months you can go on a 96 hour pass to Nairobi, Addis or Kampala, this does not include travel time so you could be gone for a week, After 6 months you are eligible for R&R which is 2 weeks home also not counting travel time.
It is not hard to be here, if you have ever been shot at.
I am one of four Vietnam vets on the base. The only combat marine from that era and as this was until recently a Marine Corps mission base, I am relegated a certain status, somewhere between icon and iconoclast, court jester or camp curiosity. (like 'Comanche" the sole surviving cavalry horse from Little Big Horn, now stuffed and displayed in a museum somewhere) ("Why the f**K would anyone go through that and still be doing this sh**?") ("I heard that old f**K was at Khe Sahn and Woodstock and couldn't tell the difference") ("I wonder if his old lady knows he's not asleep in the rocker on the porch.") ("Somebody told me, he told the Admiral that was the dumbest thing he'd ever heard since Tet "68", and the admiral agreed with him!") ("I heard that he goes by the clinic every day and they top him up with formaldehyde") A legend in my own mind. Like tattoos and Harley ownership, harder to live up to than attain.
I am somehow destined to wander through Frances' colonial failures. Even in failure, they succeed in leaving something wistful.
I am somehow destined to wander through Frances' colonial failures. Even in failure they succeed in leaving something wistful. The smell of Gaulois cigarettes, the corners of faded posters and yellowed maps embedded in dirty stucco walls, the licorice back-taste of pastis in the cafe glasses, a "Viva Paris" mindset that outlives any manifesto, even among the victorious rebels, long after the last legionnaire departs. ("We did not fail, we just grew tired of trying")
Djibouti Ville is like Port au Prince with electricity. Port au Prince was like New Orleans before electricity was invented. Vientiane was like New Orleans when electricity was still magic. New Orleans is an neon Pigalle. All are flawed copies of each other. Covered walks, rough stucco, elegant doors and everywhere the wrought iron, balustrades, balconies and posts. It must have been one of the Regimes' biggest exports. Send us your precious pelts, sugar, rubber, opium and tawny women; we will give you wrought iron curlicues and Pissoirs. Finally when the colonies were decoratively inundated, Monsieur Eiffel said, "I'll take some, to build a tower, and of course we will need a few lights".
I am, as I walk around looking up at the rusty filigree, back in all of those places, and my first one, another city on a shore that bore a Regime' name. Tourane (DaNang) Indochina. Remembering an oyster shell dawn decades ago. I did then stand on such a balcony and watch the city come awake. In the time it took to smoke a cigarette the streets went from still life to motion picture.
When the light came up against the glass in the open doors I could see, the reflection of the room I came from, and the outline of a young woman sleeping. Venus resting having emerged full grown. The mosquito net, her caul, swaying, as the fan, which had, except for outages been turning since electricity came to this place, pushed the damp morning air across the bed, causing her to reach out for the comfort of the twisted sheets.
I could have stayed on that small balcony drinking strong coffee, watching the sun color the flowers; But for the rifle propped against the bedside chair. It was as well; Natives do not want to see an unclad white man in the light of day. I gently pulled the sheet across her thinking, "bye, bye miss, I have to go shoot your cousin, or him me". The sound of my leaving was drowned in the beginning clatter of the day.
I cannot remember her name, nor forget the sight of her. The French don't so much make history as create atmosphere, an atmosphere that lingers like regret, long after opportunity has passed. A sense of melancholy that in some odd way takes the edge off despair. All is remembered in curlicues of iron and smoke.
Some of my time is spent dealing with many of the enlisted issues, training, discipline, and morale. At other times I have various tasks, which involve a bit of travel, overland, cross-country and across borders. When it is available, I go by air. None of it comfortable and as hardly any of the commercial vehicles or aircraft are mechanically sound; every trip is guaranteed exciting. Airports are recognizable as "international" if the wreckage of planes from at least two major aircraft producing nations litter the taxiway. The control towers are all sandbagged, you have to be apprehensive only if the sandbags are new. We have various sites throughout the region, some remote and others in the larger cities.
I arrive unannounced, like a combative mother-in-law, to rifle through their dressers and cupboards, sleep on their couch and question their motivation. "If I didn't care about you halfwits, I'd sit on my ass in DJ and let you die from your own proven ineptitude and inherent stupidity; Unfortunately your early demise would generate more paperwork than any of you are worth" "Now get this dump cleaned up and let's, for at least the time I'm here, maintain the illusion we're in the Army: and I don't mean the fu**kin' Salvation Army" "We're glad to see you Sergeant Major" "Yeah? Well I'm going to fix that" The threat level is higher for disease or injury than actual combat. ("I take my pills and put my helmet on..." D. Bow..)
Some nights I go with the security patrols through the club district. We wear civilian clothes, as do all Americans in town, but are identifiable by the rough bulges of phones and pistols, under loose shirts. We are looking for servicemen that might embarrass the US or anyone that might cause them harm.
The Djiboutian's, at least the bar and brothel owners, wish it were otherwise. Drunkenness can get you sent back to the camp, sexual relations get you sent home in disgrace, with a stop in Germany for HIV testing, If the worst can be believed, and there is no reason not to, getting caught is the least of one's worries.
The clubs, squalid and pathetic in daylight, are at night, by the magic of darkness and lighting, inviting and tempting. The doormen appear like tropical penguins in their unjacketed tuxedos, bowties askew. When not manning the door and shooing beggars they slouch chewing Khat. They are so glad to see you and the unsubtle bulge on your hip guarantees a drink you cannot take, but the offer stands.
Inside is all glass and mirrors; the back bars are like jewelry store windows, each bottle, an exotic gem. Settees and upholstered banquettes encourage lounging, none designed for single seating. Beautiful caramel and dark chocolate hostesses in impossible shoes cater drinks, dance passively and.. "would not be frightened by a kiss".
Their white blouses, trousers and teeth, an equally impossible glacial blue white in the black lights. Their sleek shapes reflected on the looking glass walls, become fleeting X-ray negatives in the flashing strobes. Nothing is real. The air reptilian in its coolness. The lighting, an emergency in progress. The music, fast paced techno synthesized hybrid rap, which even if understood would make no sense. The backbeat gives the sound its only reason. The rapid throbbing heart of fear or passion; dreamt or imagined as is all, but death, slow or sudden.
"Au boisson? Ami" ("a drink? My friend") "Â Non, Merci, Cheri" ("No, thank you, Love")
Command Sergeant Major T. P. Dunne
CJTFHOA (Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa )
11, July 2006
Story Themes: 3rd Marine Amphibious Force, Africa, Career Military, Colonialism, Infantry, Saint Paul, St Paul, Vietnam Veterans of America, VVA