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Desert Fatigues


Michael Dvorak

In the summer of 1993, two years after returning from combat duty in the Gulf War, Joel Turnipseed received an unexpected phone call. It was from the Dog Pound. "'Hey, this is Hatch,'" Turnipseed recalls the conversation going. "I'm like, 'What do you mean, this is Hatch? Hatch who?' And he's like, 'Hatcher, Douglass Hatcher, motherfucker.'"

It was the first time that Turnipseed had spoken with Hatch--or any other members of the Dog Pound, with whom he had shared a tent in Saudi Arabia--since returning from the war. Hatch had a simple question for his fellow ex-Marine: How come you're not writing the book? "The book, my brother. You gotta write the book. You're the only one who knows how to write the book. How could you have that experience and not write the book?'"

What else could Turnipseed say? "I'm like, 'All right, I'll write the book.'"

Several weeks later Turnipseed was on a train en route to North Philly to meet up with Hatch. He had a carton of cigarettes, a Mont Blanc fountain pen, and a stack of empty journals. When Turnipseed arrived at the train station in Philadelphia, however, Hatch was nowhere to be found. "The fucker didn't show up," Turnipseed laughs, recounting the story over coffee at a Dunn Bros in downtown Minneapolis. "Maybe he got arrested. Who knows. I've never talked to him since. His phone got disconnected. Life is hard in North Philly. You never know what happens to people."

The Gulf War reunion may have been a bust, but a decade later Turnipseed has finally written "the book." Baghdad Express, the 34-year-old's account of transporting 155mm shells and Kellogg's cereal boxes from Jubayl, Saudi Arabia, to the front lines of the war, will be published this month by Borealis Books (a new imprint of Minnesota Historical Society Press). It's more a coming-of-age memoir than a chronicle of bloodshed: Turnipseed's aptitude for dark humor and philosophical rumination proves greater than his skill at firing off M-16 rounds. His first act upon arriving in Saudi Arabia is to scrawl "Know Thyself" on his combat helmet with the o transformed into a peace symbol. And he spends his down time brooding over passages from Nietzsche and Thoreau.

"I wanted to be back in a coffee shop reading Wittgenstein," Turnipseed writes. "Instead I was always being asked to give an opinion on the state of 9mm pistols or Motor Trend's Car of the Year." His unlikely last name is bastardized at various times into "Turnipstrudel," "Turnipjew," and "Nietzschenstrudel." The most imminent danger he faces for much of the war is the possibility of getting the shit kicked out of him by his fellow Marines.

Anthony Swofford would have been a decent candidate to dish out such a beating. He's the author of Jarhead (Scribner), another recently released Gulf War memoir. In contrast to Baghdad Express, it's a swashbuckling--if ultimately cautionary--red-meat account of serving in the trenches. In an early section Swofford recounts the weeks leading up to his deployment in the Persian Gulf, in which his platoon indulges in a machismo bender of war movies, beer, and sadistic male-bonding rituals. "Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone," he writes. "And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope, I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers."

Swofford's account throbs with the menace of chemical weapons, oil fires, and battle-hardened Iraqi soldiers. He pisses his pants and prepares for death. For all the lurking dangers, however, the closest Swofford comes to becoming a battle casualty is when his unit comes under fire from American tanks. "We are fighting ourselves, but we can't fight back," Swofford writes.

Turnipseed's wartime duty was more mundane. He spends his days and nights hauling supplies and pulling guard duty. Turnipseed fires no shots and dodges no bullets. His chief complaint is lack of sleep. The only time he draws his M-16 rifle is to convince a lead-footed, non-English speaking truck driver to ease off the gas as they transport napalm down a dirt road. (For the full story on this showdown, see the excerpt titled "Cigarette," below.)

Turnipseed's weary narrative voice, then, owes to the fact that he arrived in the corps as a kind of battle casualty. Early on in Baghdad Express, he recounts the miserable childhood that led him to retreat into a philosophical shell. This is how Turnipseed describes the courtship of his parents: "When my mother got knocked up by a guy at a party, and he refused to have anything to do with her afterwards, my father led my uncles in beating the crap out of the guy. He seemed like a hero to her." In Baghdad Express, Turnipseed recounts that his childhood involved its own generous share of ass-whuppings and tumult. He attended a different school every year from kindergarten until 10th grade, which made him, as he writes, "a connoisseur of loneliness."

 

By the summer of 1990 Turnipseed was a homeless college dropout who had gone AWOL from the Marines. He squared himself with the military just in time for Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait. The news that he was to report for active duty actually came as something of a relief. "The fact was, I had no clue where I would live if I didn't get called up," Turnipseed writes.

He arrives in Saudi Arabia weighted down with philosophical treatises, which he maintains as a sort of road map through life's minefields. War gradually forces Turnipseed out of his belief in philosophy as an absolute anodyne. The harsh reality of driving tractor trailers loaded with explosives through the desert at all hours of the night and day--coupled with constant scud missile alarms, anthrax shots, and life in a tent full of foul-mouthed, foul-smelling Marines--doesn't allow for much Emersonian contemplation.

The biggest shock to Turnipseed's practiced alienation comes when he moves into the Dog Pound. Soon after arriving in Saudi Arabia, he's left behind when his Minneapolis unit heads north to the Kuwait border. Turnipseed is adopted by a unit from around Philly. The culture clash between the Midwestern White Boy Philosopher and the Brothers from North Philly provides some of the book's most comic and meaningful moments.

"Where you from, Turnipjew? You Jewish?"

"No, I'm Vegetable. And I'm from Minneapolis."

"Hey Turnipseed," cried Morris, "don't that make you a frozen vegetable? Your ancestors come in a plastic bag like them peas and carrots and shit?"

When Turnipseed's truck gets marooned in the desert on a cold night, one of the Dog Pound crew shows up to offer him a meal and, literally, the coat off his back. Our narrator is eventually given the moniker "Professor" and adopted as an honorary member of the Pound.

This surprising sense of inclusion arrives at the same time that Turnipseed comes face to face with the real outsiders--the conquered and despairing Iraqi enemy. At the end of the conflict, Turnipseed is dispatched on a "secret mission." He ends up visiting a prisoner-of-war camp, staring vacantly as cattle cars discharge their human freight. "The POWs were walking past us now," Turnipseed writes of the Iraqis, "a grim procession of soot, grime, dried blood, matted and greasy hair, dead and distant stares, hollow cheeks, the meek and wretched going to the collection of their inheritance."

 

Joel Turnipseed doesn't look like a Marine these days. Seated at his kitchen table in the northeast Minneapolis home he shares with his wife of two years and two cats, he has traded in his desert fatigues for fleece and khakis. The vision he had upon joining the Marine Corps, of pecs that could "open a beer bottle," long ago disappeared. Since returning from the Gulf War, Turnipseed has been plagued by physical exhaustion. He used to run marathons; now any kind of exercise saps his strength for days. "[I'm] weak in the sense that I can barely pick up a bag of groceries," he says. He's uncertain what the cause of this physical malaise is--or whether it has anything to do with the time he spent in the Persian Gulf.

It took Turnipseed a decade to write Baghdad Express. After laboring on the book for four years, the author tossed the manuscript in his closet back in 1997. "I came to a point where basically I had existential cabin fever and said, 'I can't write about myself anymore,'" he recalls. In the intervening years the former Marine worked as an engineer and founded a software company. He never did graduate from college. Then early last year, encouraged by an editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press, he finally finished the memoir.

The book's long incubation period now appears shrewd. With Gulf War II seemingly imminent, Baghdad Express is generating national attention, with a Newsweek write-up and features planned for both CBS and CNBC. The initial print run is 7,500 books--one of the largest ever by the Minnesota Historical Society Press--and the publisher is poised to produce more copies.

Turnipseed is ambivalent about the publicity boon. He's disdainful of the Bush administration's justification for invading Iraq. "Dude, you're talking about fucking killing people," he scoffs. "Noncompliance? It's not like an OSHA regulation. The argument here is, Should we go kill a bunch of people? In the newspaper every day, if it said, 'Do you support killing thousands of people, yes or no?' the poll numbers would be very different."

 

Such straight talk aside, the Dog Pound didn't quite break Turnipseed of his tendency toward ostentatious intellectualism. The living room of his house is dominated by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. There's a fiction wing of the Turnipseed Library, with each book meticulously alphabetized by author.

The basement of the house has been transformed into what Turnipseed calls his "Thinkery" or "Phrontisterion." Here too the walls are lined floor to ceiling with books--the nonfiction wing of the Turnipseed Library. They are not only alphabetized, but arranged by subject matter. (The business section is hidden in a closet: "No Tom Peters mixing with the Thoreau," Turnipseed quips.) Turnipseed recently quit his technology job to labor full-time as a writer. He's currently working on a novel, entitled Cheating Heaven, the prison confessions of a businessman implicated in an insider-trading scam.

The Thinkery is not entirely devoted to deep thoughts. There's a TV, a dartboard, even a Sony PlayStation. This is the central dichotomy of Turnipseed--informed by both the Gulf War and the Great Thinkers. A friend's apt characterization: "Turnipseed, you're like unto a motherfucker."

When Turnipseed got married he left behind more than just his solitude: He also adopted his wife's last name. Officially he's now Joel Hernandez.

Hernandez, you're like unto a motherfucker: Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?

 

Cigarette

Sitting beside me on the cracked bench seat of another old Mercedes was my driver. He was hanging his head and one arm out the window, negotiating with fast words and faster fingers--jittery shaking gestures, of what? Desire. The man standing before him, some friend or waylaid bystander wearing the full-blown robe and headband bit, shrugged and held out an open palm, offering a crushed and empty box of Marlboros.

Now that my watch was broken, even time was kept in Cigarette. It was one cigarette and half past a craving when my driver looked at me, eyes heavy-lidded.

"Hey," I said, holding an open pack of Camels, "you want a cigarette?"

He smiled. It was not an encouraging smile.

"Would you like a cigarette?" No answer. "Oh, you don't speak English?"

I pulled two cigarettes from the box, taking one between my lips, offering the other to him. The flame from my lighter flickered in the wind. His hair was long and wiry, his teeth slightly yellowed. Short whiskers grew around the lower edges of his lips and beneath his chin.

"You want a cigarette, or what?" I said, pushing the cigarette toward him. He took the thing offhandedly, then pointed at an opened package of gum lying in the ashtray. The wrappers were faded Pepto-Bismol pink and covered with dust.

"Oh," I groaned. "No, no thanks."

He smiled again, and gestured with little waves from the gum to me.

"No, really, no thanks."

I wondered if he knew more about what happened to Yusef, or to Haddad's driver, than I had. We had heard that the foreign nationals who fucked up, chickened out, or otherwise caused logistical problems for the First Marine Expeditionary Force got worked over by Khameini Company thugs. We had also heard they would all be replaced by more reservists coming in from the States.

The whole affair was confusing as hell. It had to be worse for guys like Yusef and this new guy. Having given up on his proffers of gum and goodwill, he leaned back against his door, smiling warily.

"So you speak no English?" I asked him. "You got a name? What's your mother call you?" I sounded like a bully, even to myself.

He just smiled and held out his cigarette, which already had a long ash dangling from the end. The ash fell in a disintegrating tumble as he raised it.

"Cigarette? It's your name, too, huh? Fair enough. Well, Cigarette, what do you say we get this show on the road?"

I looked up at the steel and gunmetal sky and, leaning forward in my seat, stretched my gaze right up to where the horizon curved north toward Mishab, toward the expectation of more shells exploding in the distance....

 

We were asked to pull ahead by a pfc wearing Day-Glo flightline ear-protectors and greasy overalls. He just appeared around a corner, all of a sudden, waving bright red cones. Then he disappeared.

No smoking was allowed inside the airport compound. No smoking. I just stared at the window as one by one the raindrops erased the dust. It had rained nearly every day we'd been in country. The rain rinsed dark streaks down the sides of 155mm rounds piled on pallets stacked higher than a man's head. After a while, I passed through to the other side of boredom, and began noticing the faint sparkles in the windshield, how the rain pitted the sand along the edges of the ammunition-laden pallets. Corporal Schuyler came by for a minute, walking past with his hands in his pockets. He looked up at me. "Just bored as all fuck," he said.

 

A forklift rolled by with a load of--kegs? I jumped down out of the cab, and into the drizzle. Shivering, I walked around to the bed of my trailer, which had already been loaded with several pallets. Another forklift came by. I flagged it down.

"Hey!" I hollered, "What's in the kegs? Beer?"

"No," the driver answered, "just napalm." He looked so matter-of-fact. "For putting out the fires, and clearing the foliage. You know, the ground attacks."

"Foliage?"

Cigarette was strapping down the last of the pallets, squinting at me in the light rain. The forklift operator turned around and bounced off into the floodlights as Cigarette slammed the trailer storage box shut.

 

I had no idea when I'd fallen asleep, but I awoke with a jolt. And then another. Our truck felt like it was flying through Oklahoma turbulence. I tried gaining my bearings, but couldn't see beyond the edge of the road. There was no moon, no stars, no shadows. No discernible shapes, and the road ahead was barely visible under the dim running lights we used near the front lines. Cigarette was listening to staticky Islamic yodeling on the radio. Prayers. The amber glow of the dash lit up the windows, so that all I could see was my own reflection, like an old film negative. I looked over at Cigarette and began to worry.

"Hey, slow down, man."

His eyes were bloodshot and wide open, and he held the steering wheel tightly. I turned around to see if we still had our load. We had our load, but I couldn't see any truck lights behind us. Or ahead of us. We were driving one of the hastily engineered dirt roads connecting the Abu Hadriyah Highway to the ammunition supply points, or asps. They were basically made of gravel dumped in the desert and then driven over by tanks. Compared to the civil engineering marvel of the Abu Hadriyah, these things were a goddamn nightmare. It was hard to believe we could even drive them. We hit another bump and I flew up, almost smacking my helmet against the ceiling.

"Hey, slow the fuck down."

Of course, he only spoke Cigarette. The speedometer was broken, but the RPM gauge read close to 3000, which on an old diesel is redline. Way past redline. Cigarette's hair stood out in wiry scraggles, like twisted wire, and his lips curled in a grimace.

"Okay, cut the crap!" I screamed, reaching over to lift his leg with my arm. He swatted at me as we hit another bump, which threw me back against the passenger door. I held my head low and closed my eyes, trying to take deep breaths. "Okay, don't do anything stupid. Napalm doesn't just explode when it hits the road. He knows what he's doing. You're not actually inside Iraqi territory. You're a Marine, trained to face this kind of pressure. Calm. Collected--"

We hit another bump, a big-ass, frame-rattling, helmet-tossing crash. When the Mercedes settled back onto its suspension again, I grabbed my M-16, swinging it with my entire body, slamming my back against the passenger-side door.

"LISTEN, YOU STUPID SONOFABITCH, STOP THE FUCKIN' TRUCK."

Cigarette turned slowly and looked at me: barren, lifeless. The prayers on the radio continued to fill our cab. I pulled the charging handle back on my rifle, sending a round into the chamber: clack-click.

He stared straight ahead. He slowed down. Evidently my rifle spoke Cigarette, too. The whine of the engine fell to a soft whisper. I rolled down the window, calmed by the cool mist. I closed my eyes, but I didn't dare dream.

 

Excerpted from Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir (published by Borealis Books). © 2003 by Joel Turnipseed.


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