I confess that I don’t remember the man’s name, nor the exact events surrounding his untimely death. But he left a lasting impression on me.
It was summer 2013 in Bahrain, when the white egrets stood as statues in stale ocean water watching shimmering cars emerge from mirages down King Hamad Highway. And when thick black smoke from burning tire fires choked the dusty air. Those days seeped into my pores like the oil churning through monstrous refineries along the highway, and still lingers in my blood all these years later.
He worked at the Navy clinic next to the Air Force fire station, where I clocked in at 6 a.m. every other day. He drove ISA Air Base’s only bare bones ambulance.
Once, he let me inside the back to see how few supplies they had. The truck didn’t even have oxygen, just a few basic first aid gauze pads and an emergency trauma kit. A thin layer of dirt covered everything, even the shitty stretcher.
“What are you supposed to do if something really bad happens?” I asked, looking up from the trauma bag.
The man shrugged, took a drag of his cigarette with a shaky hand and leaned in through the rig’s door frame. Blinding white sun streamed in from behind.
“Call you you guys I guess?”
He laughed, removed his green Navy Working Uniform cover to wipe away sweat, adding: “in other words we’re fucked.”
Then he ground the cigarette butt into the dirt.
Inside the clinic wasn’t much better, albeit a lot cleaner. There weren’t even any pictures on the walls. Although Uncle Sam heavily stocked up on free contraception and aids prevention pamphlets.
I went there once to get antibiotics and was shocked by the amount of condoms in the waiting room – little individual plastic packages heaped into a large bowl.
Everybody slept with everybody, or at least that’s what everyone said.
Different people reacted differently to the desert and deployment, which was mostly boring. Some turned to sex. Others, like myself, lived in the weight room. Many, like him, spent their evenings sitting on picnic tables in the smoke pit sharing the day’s drama.
I learned he’d gone home one day at role call. It was a casual mention from my supervisor; we’d be soon working with another seaman.
Then a week later the man committed ‘suicide by cop’ on a Navy base stateside, or at least that’s what the rumor was – there was also something about his wife cheating him. But I knew better: the desert got to him; suffocated his soul like dust covering the midday sun.
I know because I felt it too; still feel it now, four years post-deployment – a depression itch that can’t be scratched.
In the evening I paid my respects to a grainy black and white photograph of him propped against a folded American flag under a tan camouflage tent.
That was the last time I saw his face. But in my mind’s eye I’ll always remember him sitting on a picnic table in the smoke pit taking a deep inhale of a cigarette crackling orange; puffing it out, watching the smoke dissipate into heavy black night.