Guernica, March 2010
I. Bright without warmth and vast beyond meaning, a winter sky burned over the plains. Pellets of ice clung to every vehicle in the cul-de-sac and even here at noon, nostrils could freeze together. David Allen Channell, master sergeant, was waiting in a Chevy, its engine running, exhaust pipe dripping, and as the wind kicked up it spun snow through the air in lonesome clusters.
“Hey,” I said, opening the door as a wave of heat spilled from the cab.
“Hey,” Channell said.
I knocked my boots together and snow fell from the soles and onto the floorboard. The pause made a handshake awkward and we pulled away from the house. Channell was driving down from Cheyenne to Fort Carson to file discharge paperwork for the Army.
“This is a nice truck,” I said.
“You’ve never seen this?”
“I got this when I came back.”
I hadn’t seen him since Afghanistan.
The truck crept forward and mashed snow under its tires.
“You’ll have to buy me lunch,” I said. “My finances—”
“Geez,” he huffed. “How old are you?”
Thirty-one. Broke again, or still, depending on how you counted. He scoffed, pressed the accelerator. We pulled into weekday traffic and drove toward the interstate. When we hit an icy I-25, I asked him about his heart surgery. He said his chest still hurt and he was afraid to sneeze or laugh too hard. He couldn’t exercise much either but that wasn’t going to keep him from going back to Kyrgyzstan.
“How was it over there?” I asked. “How was it with, what’s her name?”
“How was it with Albina?”
“Good. That whole country is mountains,” Channell said.
I wanted to tell him how ridiculous it was to spend time and money on a Russian-Kyrg he’d met on a foreign base, this man who'd once been married to my mother; instead, I pointed him toward the exit for Chipotle. He said he had the old house for sale in Rock Springs but had to clean it out, and I thought about the things I might have left in my mother’s closet: high school diploma, photographs, red ribbons of a second-place childhood. Beyond the suburbs, the mountains of the Front Range were draped in clean snow.
“Brian,” he said, “I’m going to sell that acre.”
Below the rough rolling peaks of the Wyoming Range, past the foothills of Lookout Mountain and their flickering stands of aspen, on a stretch of dusty prairie, lies the acre, forty-three thousand square feet of sagebrush, slew grass, and wildflowers. In the right season: buttercup, marsh marigold, elephant head, shooting star, wild aster, and flowering moss; sandhill cranes and blackbirds, magpies and meadowlarks, jack rabbits, red-tailed hawks, gophers, badgers, maybe a coyote. A boy, me, wakes, nose cold in a sleeping bag next to a still campfire, morning breaking, frost on the ground, frost on the bag. Beyond camp a spring where stubby willows and tender moss grow. The spring trickles over a knob and into a creek, its whole life maybe two hundred yards. The rest of the acre is an uneven patch of brush and grass. Far to the east, Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, jagged shadows against the dawn.
Trips like this are usually to cut firewood: my mother, me, my sister, and Channell. We drive in the old Ford across the slopes of the Wyomings, stopping at a patch of woods, where my sister and I run deep into the timber, leaving Mom and Channell to cut deadfall with roaring saws, until Mom calls us back and we load the truck with logs steeped in sawdust and grease, returning to camp in the twilight, when nighthawks appear and cool air sneaks down the mountains.
Mom has long black hair and laughs a lot. Sometimes she wears braids and looks like a blue-eyed Indian maiden. She smokes while she cooks, pinches the cigarette between her lips, squints, stirs potatoes in a sooty Dutch oven, prods the fire, light sputtering across the acre, embers cast to the stars. The acre is hers. Channell is new. He has a tangled beard and brown eyes and a barrel chest, a bear. When he scolds, he pokes—a stiff finger to the chest—which hurts. When Channell goes too far, Mom steps in, and they bicker, shout, break dishes. This happens more in town. Our recast family works better out here, as if to get along we need all the space of the West.
In Washington winter had come full, gray, and sneaky. The potential loss of the acre had me vexed, but it wasn’t my only problem. I’d been on the road for months. My career was sputtering at best. Most of my things were in boxes scattered across three apartments and I was staying with friends on a mattress against the wall in a spare room. All the travel—hotels, couches, buses, and planes, and this bed on the floor—had me unsettled.
A friend offered a loan to buy the land and I called Channell with the news.
“I think I found a way to buy the acre,” I said.
“Well how much do you think it is?” he asked.
I thought between thirty thousand and thirty-five thousand dollars—well above market, I thought—all I could afford.
“I put it up for sixty-five,” he said. “But for you, and only you, I’d sell it for forty-five. What do you want to buy it for anyway? Sentimental reasons?”
On July 10, 1918, Myron “Buck ” Baker filed a 640-acre homestead application for a patch of land on South Beaver, under Tripod Hill, where water ran from clear springs and the hunting—elk, deer, moose—was good. He had come out of the dust and heat of Indian Territory a young fugitive, had killed barking dogs for a gang of horse thieves. In Wyoming, a new leaf, and he became a local legend, a rowdy bachelor with a kind heart and a quick wit. He drank, gambled, partook of recreational fistfights. For Prohibition, he built a still. He wore custom boots and silver spurs and was famous for his chili. He sang and yodelled and loved old records. He once kept an owl in the house to mend its broken leg and he frowned on the plucking of wildflowers.
“Clean up your egg,” Uncle Buck told guests. “That’s a whole day’s work for a hen.”
His holdings grew. He ran cattle and broke horses, and some of the work he shared with his sister and her children. One of her sons was called Bucky, after his Uncle Buck, and later, to me, Grandpa. Grandpa Bucky and Grandma Lucy had three children, Mom in the middle, between Uncle Gary and Aunt Ellen. Uncle Buck said he would give anyone with Baker blood in them one and forty acres. Grandpa showed Mom an acre with a spring on it. She took that one and another forty near Tripod Hill and everyone else took theirs up on the Beaver Creeks. After Uncle Buck died, on a Christmas Eve, his holdings were divided, split up, diminished across a scattered family. Year by year, the land was sold: Ellen’s to build a business, Gary’s to help his daughter through school. Mom sold her forty to finance our house in Rock Springs, 100 miles south, a mining town on the interstate where we’d moved when I was thirteen. In time, only Mom’s acre remained.
II. The disease can start anywhere. She bangs her knee just once, chasing the dog into the house, slipping on the ice, and the pain doesn’t stop. The pain is a relentless searing ambush from beneath the kneecap and it runs like a river of fire. The nerves can’t stop sending signals of burning pain. The knee swells. The disease in time inundates. Befuddles doctors. Miffs. Work is impossible. She worries people think she’s lazy. Depression comes heavy. She smokes. Puts on weight. She diets but the pain makes exercise hard and the weight stays. Wrinkles deepen from a wincing mouth. The pain alters her face, pulls it downward. She gets Lidocaine patches, which numbs the skin, and Neurontin, to stop the burning. Morphine suckers work best. Her world shrinks: hospital visits, stops at the clinic, the pharmacy, arduous trips to Wal-Mart. Her children seem bored by the disease. Even its name is complicated: Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. In time, she stops explaining. “It’s not interesting,” she says, as she takes an ice bag out of the freezer and limps to the couch. Sometimes in the evening she sits in the backyard, leg propped up, smoking, staring into a cold pond of shadows. An autopsy will not reveal cause of death; the heart will not beat properly one night while she sleeps, they suppose, the pain and medication and sadness vanquishing its will.
Channell wasn’t home the night Mom died. He was working in Cheyenne at the Guard’s state headquarters, living in a camper trailer, and when he heard the news he looked like he might try to kill himself and had to be watched. I flew in for the funeral, which Channell wanted to have in his backyard, next to the pond. His temper had always been high grade incendiary, but in the hours preceding the funeral a sense of detonation filled the house. His grief came in heaving sobs and he shook his meaty fists toward the sky as if challenging the Almighty to a brawl.
I moved back to Wyoming to stay with Aunt Ellen in the middle of deep winter and a world packed in snow. I wrote, read, ran, swam, nothing else, for three months. In the tight darkness of winter nights, I stood outside and smoked and watched each breath rise to the stars and I thought of the acre.
By May I’d found work in the gas fields outside Pinedale and I moved in with Grandma Lucy. I had not lived in Pinedale for many years and it had changed. My hometown was a boomtown, full of strangers and money, and the old drunks had new ears in which to bellow. I regained lost time: had cookouts with Uncle Gary, helped Grandma at her greenhouse, took long walks into the mountains, camped. I dug trenches and turned wrenches in the Jonah Field, twenty-one thousand acres of prairie southwest of town, where the deer and the antelope wandered under groaning rigs. Hundreds of trucks and thousands of workers crisscrossed this stretch of high plains where once you could drive alone for miles. The idea of home sharpened with the details of the place: the noise of crickets and blackbirds, of truck hoods baking in the sun, the smell of afternoon rain on dust and mountain air at sunset.
A boy, me, just old enough to carry a gun, and Channell are hunting, patrolling thick sagebrush, looking to kick up grouse. Channell carries a semi-automatic 12 gauge, firepower. I’m stuck with a break-open, single-shot, 20 gauge, narrow shells clacking in a vest pocket. A lone mourning dove bursts from the brush flapping hard, fast across my field of fire and I raise the burnished barrel and fire. The shotgun roars and the bird falls and in the silence a cloud of burned powder drifts between me and Channell. “Nice shot,” he whoops and in that moment perhaps forgets his stepson is a dreamer, frivolous, an enigma to a man with no patience for sarcasm, liberals, or the New York Times, who is unimpressed by intellectual achievement but angered by poor grades and has found himself rearing a brooder. I have perhaps countervailed his disdain, at least for a day, with buckshot.
III. In the fall of ’05, Channell got shipped to Afghanistan. An e-mail: “I am in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Temps are still in the 100’s. Lots of bad guys here.” By May the following year, I’d put together enough story assignments to go myself. I flew on a cargo plane into Kandahar Airfield, a desert of baking heat and stone, in the middle of the Hundred-Day Winds, when the air feels like it came from a furnace.
In Afghanistan, land divides: clans of the mountains, of the plains, of the hardscrabble hills. “So great is the contrast between the naked slopes and the oases at the foot of the hills that the marauding tribes look on it as a sort of ‘providential arrangement,’” geographer Elisee Reclus writes in “The Earth and Its Inhabitants,” published in 1891. “‘Others,’ they say, ‘have the fertile lands, but we have the strength,’ that is, to plunder them.”
In Kandahar’s crumbly airport terminal, the Taliban had made a last stand, hemmed in by U.S. commandos and their newly purchased warlords. Now in the main chamber soldiers slumped in couches, heads on hands, a giant-screen television flashing a movie. I labored past them with my overloaded pack, shuffled out into the full heat of mid-morning.
I’d arranged for Channell to pick me up. He was waiting in a rattletrap Ford Ranger, the light tactical vehicle of the Afghan National Army. I threw my pack in the back, jumped in, door creaking, dust drifting through the cab.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” Channell said.
He shook his head in disbelief and pulled away from the terminal. The roads were bustling with war traffic: supply trucks, Humvees, armored personnel carriers. On either side strode soldiers of the coalition in a menagerie of uniforms. Blackhawks groaned overhead and fat planes lumbered into the sky.
“You know,” Channell said as we drove to the mess hall for lunch one day. “If you go, you’re probably going to get hit. You’re probably going to have your first combat.”
“I’m aware of that,” I said. An intelligence officer had said as much.
Channell drummed at the steering wheel. He couldn’t go. Restricted to post; circulation and possible heart problems following a long mission in the mountains. He felt useless, he said, stuck in the tactical operations center, not on the road, not on the front.
“All right,” he said finally. “But you need to get a weapon. These sons-a-bitches out here don’t care who you are. They don’t care if you’re a journalist; they’ll just kill you.”
I didn’t plan on getting a weapon, but I didn’t say so. This was his way of being worried.
The next morning, I joined the National Guard convoy, to an outpost west of Gereshk, in Helmand province where the poppies grow, on a shimmering plain of sandstorms and dust devils. The Afghan troops loaded their trucks with ammunition and supplies and the U.S soldiers rode overwatch in armored, armed Humvees. We moved down Highway One, through Kandahar City, through “IED alley” and into “Injun country” and then past a “hornets’ nest.” We crossed the Helmand River, deep and soupy under the hot sun, water for the crops. We dropped off supplies, ate chow, picked up a broken down vehicle to tow back to base. I rode in a Humvee, body armor tight around my chest, helmet itching my head, sweating, and a little afraid, but also wondering if we could have a little ambush, nothing serious, just to see.
In front of us, black smoke began billowing from the rear axle of the tow truck, a bad sign. The convoy stopped and the vehicles swung into positions on either side of the road, where the soldiers dismounted and found firing positions and pointed their rifles into the empty wasteland of southern Afghanistan. Moments, minutes, an hour passed. The sun beat down and sweat poured from our necks.
No ambush. Only the fear in the empty heat.
“Be thankful,” Channell told me on my last night in Kandahar. We had taken a walk along the airfield’s boardwalk near a dirty soccer pitch flanked by small shops for the international troops: kiosks for pizza, burgers, ice cream, a tailor, an embroiderer, leather goods. The boards creaked and thumped as we walked over them. A warm breeze crossed the darkness, and someone scored a goal on the field. Bright halogen light bounced off the dust in the air, illuminating the game. We stared at the pitch, leaned on a rail.
“All right,” he said. “Imagine this. It’s dark like this, and there’s green tracers flying over your head everywhere. And RPGs blowing up in front of you and behind you. And there’s ANA crawling all over the ground and you’re trying not to run over them.” Insurgents had ambushed his convoy in a village in the Uruzgan Mountains. A forty-five-minute firefight: no Americans hurt, one Afghan soldier dead, three Taliban, the village destroyed, burned from 40-mm grenades launched into the buildings.
Years before, on a long drive on Interstate 80, he’d told me about a Vietnamese girl he’d had a crush on during that war. He would sneak bread from the Marine mess hall and take it to her family in a village near the post. “They probably didn’t even eat it,” he’d told me. One night, the Marines fired flares to illuminate the perimeter, and those drifted into the village, igniting the thatch. “Needless to say, that was the end of that relationship.”
Two villages burned, how many years apart? On the field, an American kid in an Army T-shirt kicked a ball into a netless goal.
“I want to tell you something,” Channell said on our walk back. “The secret to women is gold. Just something small. You can do diamonds and all that crap, but you can give them something gold, something small, that doesn’t break you.” He’d met a Russian-Kyrg, Albina, who worked at a massage service near the post-exchange. They’d tryst late at night near the morale and welfare rooms or the gym.
I could have cared less about the gold, but Channell’s dating told me just how far apart I’d moved from the man who’d raised me. My mother connected us and she was gone. Channell was new again. In Kandahar, this mattered less: we were professionals, soldier, writer, far from the worries of home.
I overdrew a check to get out of Afghanistan and traveled back to Wyoming. I stayed with Grandma for a month, hiked in the cool summer, thought about the acre, about Mom. Then I took a gig to write for a guidebook: Cambodia and Vietnam. I tucked everything I would need—spare T-shirts, laptop, jacket, shaving kit, first aid kit, books—into a daypack and flew across the Pacific for a ten-week trip.
Monsoon rain, warm and thick and welcoming, roofs rattling, Vietnamese forced under tarps and awnings, into smoky cafes and noodle shops, dripping, smiling crowds huddled together, glimmers of light strobing on wet boulevards.
In Hue, an e-mail from Channell: back in Wyoming, safe, on the mend. He’d been evacuated from Afghanistan to America over the summer, hospitalized with a heart condition, quadruple bypass. He’d recovered at an Air Force base in Texas. I wrote him that I had just passed Danang, the main port for U.S. forces in Channell’s other war, his wellspring. I was sitting in another place entirely, a high-class hotel, air-conditioning, rich hardwood, soft linen. Sepia photographs in the corridors: Vietnamese dressed as French, not fighters, not yet ready to reclaim their own land, where spirits of their ancestors are bound to the earth. Those without land call themselves ma troi, wandering ghosts.
“I left Hue in early Jan 1968,” Channell wrote back, “on a boat up the Perfume River headed for Da Nang, so I could get another boat back to the DMZ. I was almost killed on that boat, a sniper fired at me and missed my head by inches. It hit the bulkhead of the boat right by me. Pissed me off pretty bad, we shot up the place.”
I didn’t hear from him again until I was back in the States.
I haven’t seen Channell since I was back in Washington. He came through on his way to Kyrgyzstan. He was flying to meet Albina, to bring her over on a fiancée visa. Channell made it to my house in his rental, a silver Hyundai Sonata. It was late May and warm and he wore a light blue polo shirt with a Marine Corps pin in the front pocket. He’d put on weight since Afghanistan and surgery. We sat in my living room. He’d lost his bag on the flight and he seemed anxious. I offered him some Gatorade.
He’d been in Little Rock, he said, looking at land in the Ozarks. He’d found a doublewide trailer on three acres on a steep slope that led to a lake. The forest cover was great, the fishing good. Twenty-five miles from the nearest grocery store. I’d never been to the Ozarks. I imagined them steamy and dank, woods dark, lake turbid. I wondered if that was the America Albina imaged back in Bishkek. This made me sad.
The house in Rock Springs and the acre were still up for sale, Channell said. He’d put everything into storage, and what he couldn’t fit, he’d destroyed.
“Your mother saved everything,” he said, shaking his head. “All her records, I burned them.”
“Why did you do that?”
“I didn’t want someone stealing her identity,” he said.
I imagined Channell standing over a large barrel, smoke plumes rising from the notebooks of his wife and my mother, gone.
“I still talk to your mother, you know,” Channell said. “Maybe that seems weird to you.”
It didn’t, I said, but the admission just hung there so I asked more about the house.
He had renters who were looking to buy but they had to get their credit in decent shape first. The house needed to sell because he’d taken a huge pay cut on retiring and the Army wasn’t paying him full disability, not for any of the “effects of war.” Already, the costs of his long-distance love were mounting. “My savings are pthhhbbbt,” he said, sticking out his tongue, pointing his thumb to the floor.
Somewhere in that moment I realized I would never own the acre. But then, I understood this as unnecessary. I would have to let it go. Owning it would not put me closer to my family, would not connect me to my past. I didn’t need land. I needed a place, the kind you can’t buy, can’t sell, can’t deed, lease, or fence. As for Channell, he and I would have to learn who we were to each other, acre or no, mother, wife or no.
After dinner, we left for the airport to check on his luggage. The road was wide and empty and rain polished, and as we crossed a bridge, an airliner glided in over the Potomac, its navigation lights bouncing off the dark water. We parked in the concrete garage, went inside, and found his bag, leaned against a rail near the luggage conveyor. He dragged the suitcase back to the Sonata.
Channell’s smallest bag was still in the back seat, bursting at the seams, a bag that wouldn’t fit in the overhead no matter how hard you shoved it.
“That’s your carry on?” I teased. “I traveled across Southeast Asia with a backpack smaller than that.” Channell peered into the back seat, then, grinning, said, “So did I.”
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