Monday, August 01, 2005

The Calm Before the Storm

The roof of the Alamo spreads out before me in the darkness, with only the silhouette of the machine gun positions outlined against the night sky. The sandbags building up the positions form part of the wall in the darkness, leaving me feeling like I am looking out over the crenulated battlements of an old castle.

To the east, the moon is low in the sky, its pale crescent face floating prophetically above the outline of the tall minaret of the mosque. Above, only the stars high up above the horizon are visible. The rest of the sky is washed out, with the lights of the city glaring off of the perpetual mist of dust in the air.

Walking to the south wall, I look out over the Shia district. I can hear them celebrating. Down the road a few hundred meters, to the west, is a large crowd. A band is playing Arabic music, and the crowd thrusts their hands above their heads and moves and sways in time with the beat. A few gunshots ring out, and the crowd cheers the gunmen on.

I glance at my watch.


It must be a wedding.

Standing behind a gun emplacement, I allow the sounds of the celebration to wash over me. The revelers are in full swing. Just off the main road, they sit around their tables and watch the crowd dancing. I can hear the men laughing and shouting. The women are grouped in clusters, many wearing all black, except for the bride, who is adorned in white.

These are the sights and sounds of life. Here, in the midst of all of the darkness and decay, it is wonderful to see.

Suddenly, without warning, the entire northern section of the city plunges into darkness.

Turning, I look to the north, and can make out the bare shadowed outline of the buildings marking the start of the Sunni district. From here, the shadowy buildings and the even darker window holes take on a sinister look.

Then like a final curtain falling, all lights disappear to the south. The entire town washes out in darkness as the electricity fails. The electricity cutting out shuts off the music from the wedding, and the sudden failing of light and sound is profound. In the silence, the Alamo is surrounded by a sea of shadows, with nothing brighter than the moon and the now vivid stars in the sky.

The wedding party cheers in the darkness.

To the south, a few homes light up as the wealthier occupants of the town power up their generators. To the east, the mosque flashes into brilliance, its tall minaret glowing as its power comes online, a beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

I can hear the guests at the wedding begining to sing, making up for the loss of music from the band.


One of the soldiers on guard walks over and flips the night vision mounted on his helmet up and out of his face. The night vision mounted on his helmet gives his profile a slightly alien shape.

He beckons me over to the east wall, towards the mosque.

“Sir, you need to see this.”

The concern in his voice is apparent.

Walking over to the east wall I can see why. In the distance, beyond the town, a huge orange glow lights up the sky. On the horizon, the flames reach the sky and billow with a pulsing life.

Something is on fire.

Something big.

It is quite possibly the eeriest thing I have ever seen in my life.

I turn to the soldier next to me.

“When did that start?”

“Sir, it started just a few minutes ago.”

After watching for another minute, I turn away and walk over to the door leading down into the Alamo. The inside of the Alamo is not lit when the power in the city is out, and stepping down the uneven concrete steps in the darkness is hazardous at best.

Moving thru the shadowed corridors, I pass sleeping soldiers, some resting on flimsy metal cots, and some sprawled out on the ground.

All are sweltering in the summer heat.

The CP of the Alamo is small room, filled with maps and communication equipment. The soldier on radio-watch is listening to the radio intently, but he is trying to look out of the sandbagged windows at the glowing orange flames in the darkness.

Reaching for the Battalion net, I trigger the handset.

“Thunder X-Ray this is Warrior Alamo. We can see a fire to the east, possibly two to three kilometers away. It started a few minutes ago. The fire is huge, a bright ball of flame in the air.”

Thunder X-Ray seems to be digesting that information, because it takes a minute for them to respond.

“Warrior Alamo, this is Thunder X-Ray, Roger, keep us updated.”

As I put down the handset, other calls start flooding the Battalion net. Units from all over the area are calling in the massive ball of fire in the east.

As the successive calls come in, I can hear the radio-watch at Battalion getting more and more frustrated with his lack of information.

That there is a massive ball of fire in the sky is all that anyone seems to be able to say.

Finally, someone at Battalion makes a decision, and the call comes out over the radio net.

“All units, go to Redcon 1.”

Handing back the handset, I pick up my personal radio. It links me to the rest of the Platoon scattered all over the Alamo.

“All units go to Redcon 1. I want 3rd Squad on the roof, and 1st Squad manning the perimeter and the gate.”

One by one my Squad Leaders check in and acknowledge the order. Outside the CP, I can hear the soldiers scrambling to their feet to don their body armor and get their weapons.

As I walk back down the dark hallway and up the steps to the rooftop, I pass soldiers heading in the other direction, moving to man the front gate and the perimeter of the Alamo.

Other soldiers are passing me on their way up the steps, moving to their positions on the rooftop. There is little noise in the darkness. No shouting and no fuss. The soldiers know their job, and they do it well.

As I step out onto the roof, I am greeted by a relatively cool breeze that I barely notice.

The dark silhouettes of soldiers outline the wall, and I can tell from their positions that everyone has moved to the perimeter. There is now a formidable force on the rooftop. Everyone is tense, the soldiers talking quietly as they scan their sectors. Team leaders move from man to man, checking on their positions and double-checking their equipment.

We can take no chances.

The fire in the distance could be a decoy, a false alarm to draw attention away from the Alamo.

The city power going out could be the prelude to an attack.

Walking back to the west wall, I pick up a pair of binoculars, and scan the rooftops around the Alamo for signs of movement.


Putting the binoculars down, I can see the massive orange glow, still lighting up the night sky in the distance.

It is spectacular.

It is awful.

And there is something else.

The city is strangely quiet. It takes me a minute to realize what is missing.

Looking out over the street to the southwest, I realize that in the few short minutes I had been inside the Alamo, the entire wedding party has disbursed.

All of the signs of life and happiness are gone.

Gone is the singing and dancing.

Gone too are the sounds of laughter and the long rows of food laden tables.

It leaves me strangely empty inside.

In just a few short minutes, the street has gone from one of reveling, to that of tense, anxious moments in the dark.

It is as if the people here sense it too.

There is a sense of waiting.

Like the calm before the storm.

We could be attacked at any time, and still there is that massive orange glow to the east.

As I begin to walk the perimeter of the roof to check on the battle positions, I suddenly feel very tired.

It is going to be a long night.


Anonymous Moly said...

You all run together like a well-oiled machine, each man where he should be and thinking what he ought. I found myself reading faster and faster, as though I had the guarantee there'd be closure and clarification at the end. (I'm so Disney-fied, I tell ya. Everything does not have a clean cut ending straightaway.) A picture may be worth many words, but such description removes the need for a visual aid. I'm sure all reading saw exactly what you did that mysterious night with the same understanding that anything can happen.

So far, my fave entry of the latest three.

11:10 AM  

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