Rider’s reflection

EinsteinTonight I ride again. It is only me and my shiny, German machinery with sloppy suspension, loose handlebars, strange valve stems, and reflective decals drawn for speed.

Across the sand parking area and next to the wooden, Turkish toilets with overflowing barrels positioned below each sawed out hole. The wind is thankfully westward. The flies busy themselves with piles on the deck beneath those cutouts which don’t have steel drums. Their day planner inevitably reads -5:00am to 10:00pm, land on Jayme’s face. But for now their time is consumed. I pass unnoticed.

Around the south bend, just to the right of the makeshift soccer field and a couple hand built goals made from two by fours and cargo netting. To the left of the green dumpsters, trash only please, no metal, concrete, or glass, with the practice shoot house enveloping the cement slab behind them. Weapons on safe. 360 degree security. Tighten the stack. So much to learn.

Onto the lonely stretch of road escaping East Camp Habbaniyah where no Iraqi travels without American escort. Fear of Iraqi military. Fear runs deep when those who once were enemy are in the backyard, eyeballing the steaks on your grill with a hungry eye. The fear is higher than I am, perched stubbornly next to the eagle on the collar of checks, rechecks, and balances. Safety is safer when the unknown is controlled.

Past my men drinking tea on the curb next to their chow hall, where generals only go when there are dogs and ponies on the guest list. My men. The same ones since Fallujah and boiled chicken and wild rice on bitter nights with kerosene heaters and the same, hot tea. They call my name. So many who know it. And dash into the narrow road to test my reflexes. I stay my course, squinting behind my flat black sunglasses and concentrating on the line through the crowd. Over my shoulder I holler to watch it or get your ass run over, but my smiles and laughter reveal my conviction. In a wave they are behind me. The food smells the same. It should. It comes from across the river in a place grander than this one. Where rumors of women and electronics and junk food lure our imaginations six days out of seven. But the toilets again. Damn these Turkish shitters. Not as frequented but pungent none the less.

Through the once new, heavy gauge gate with the bent right side from the tractor trailer only a day ago. Three American soldiers watch me pass, deciding a log book entry isn’t necessary. I’m in uniform after all, and what the eagle doesn’t know won’t hurt it.

Green side now. Meaning safe in the embrace of the Army’s 506th Infantry Battalion. No longer at risk of cloak and dagger but targeted more as infidels abound. East Camp behind me in the rearview mirror if I had one. My legs don’t pedal like they’ve done across thousands of miles of asphalt in days gone by. They’re clunky, marionette extensions of my body that stop every few strokes. They’re taking their sweet time in remembering a cadence. Any cadence. They’re vengeful. They’ve been bearing the weight of almost seventy pounds of arms, ammunition, and personal protection for months now. Why the new demand? We know what we’re doing. Don’t rush us. And Butt says he’s not too happy either.

The chain clicks over to a smaller cog and I pick up speed. The bounce of the rear suspension is unmistakable with every revolution of the crank set. I feel it through the bike to the front shock. German engineering my ass. But it is getting smoother, no matter how minuscule the difference. Legs are even keeping up with Brain.

Into the steamy, setting sun of 1715. The blacktop would ripple if not for the sand everywhere, on everything. It’s already been four minutes? Past a puppy so skinny his ribs poke ridges through his fur. He doesn’t hear me. How can that be? I’ve been on quieter airliners. His back is turned. He tends to himself near the trash of the ditch. I can’t be too close. If he bolts I could be eating asphalt instead of meatloaf for supper. I swing wide enough for insurance but close enough to see the puddle when he hunkers down in instinct and gives a yelp. His hunger equals his fear but he slinks to the bushes without another sound.

Through the traffic circle with the hand painted and misspelled Camp Habbanyh board. I shoot the gap between Curr Ahee Chapel, next door to the gym of my daily 0600 visits. But no gym now. That was the afternoon with hardly another soul when everyone else was stuffing chow in their faces instead of training. Chow. The mission for the moment. Left turn from the asphalt over the first real dirt trail I’ve hit in months. Flanking Peace Rest Iraqi Cuisine where soldiers play with the owner’s four year old son in the pea gravel by the hand washing stations. Ten dollars for chicken and rice, flat bread and veggies? Five times the going local price. Someone’s got their hand in the honey pot, I bet. Scratch your back? Get a cut. Interpreters who know too much get moved. Conspiracy afoot.

Between the buildings by the old diesel tank, over the pea gravel again but negotiating getting past two guys walking towards me. Shift my weight. Apply some brake. Aim for the high road. Losing traction with the front tire as I nose precariously towards the dirt and throw a foot down to keep my balance. Whoa. Save face by a hair. Nice recovery for a near miss.But awkwardness in my voice. They know. They know I almost bit it. I may just see them again with road rash on my head and they’ll know for sure then. But I won’t.

Straight to the front chow hall door. Swing my leg over the set and dismount as smooth as any thousand dollar bike, but without the handlebar streamers or pink basket. Baked chicken inside with black eyed peas, rice and gravy but my mind stays with my bike outside. And why would it not? It’s been too long. Grape juice washes down the rice and I’m back in the sun with my cover in my cargo packet and my sunglasses on.

The long way back now. Around the gym and north on the road with all the trees that runs by El Mariachi. Closed for lunch? The same people who see me walk day after day see me now riding by with focus and determination. My legs unwillingly resign themselves to more revolutions in the future. Brain no longer registers their arguments. Shocks still bouncing along. Gears skip a bit. It could always be worse. It could be my Habu Special from Okinawa with three working gears and a blown shock.

East Camp so soon? There’s the black gate and lonely road. Easier getting on then off. No one cares who comes. Just who goes. Nearer the Iraqi chow hall than before, winding through a formation. My men again? Shouldn’t they be cleaning? Track stand, balance, keep the pedals steady and stop a second or two while the bodies clear a path. More cheers and jeers and suddenly an opening in the crowd. I shoot and I score and it’s nothing but open road all the way home.

Dismount. Wheel it inside to lean against my rack for another time. Sooner than later? If I had hair there’d be wind through it right now. Bugs in my teeth. Scabs on elbows and knees and cactus needles everywhere. The good life. Because there is no good without the bad. And being four again, tangled horribly in ape hangers and a banana seat at the bottom of a scoria road with a tractor bearing down is a good time. Even when it takes a few decades to figure that out.

I ride again. In this place on the other side of the known world for most. And it is good.

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The author.Born in the year of the Dragon, the author grudgingly accepts the fact he has too many interests and not enough time. A cyclist as long as he can remember, an avid yet inconsistent writer since age eleven, and a U.S. Marine since age twenty-one, the author also adds peak bagging, diving, snowboarding, and computers to his list of interests. Incidentally, he is aware of his inability to make a living from any but the Corps. The author accepts this as fact and remains optimistic. Feel free to drop him a line.

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