Thunder peels down the canyons of cement, echoing from the edifices above, stern with the cold sunlight of another March afternoon. The Leathernecks were out in force today, or as Pointman, our dreadlocked Rastafarian warrior-poet would say, ‘on patrol’, as if lower Manhattan secretly harbored a hidden rice paddy or two, freshly remembered from his youth. Ironically, it was indeed Vietnam that drew us out of our toasty living rooms and into the crisp early spring day, although an observance ceremony at Veterans Plaza, and not some somnambulant Tet Offensive sprung from our leader’s teenage memories.
Perhaps it was the solemn nature of the occasion, or reading the letters home, carved in the Wall, from long dead boys stranded on the other side of the world, but we were all more jazzed up than usual afterwards, ready to drown those secondhand nightmares in bourbon and beer and overpriced cheeseburgers. We descended upon the Village like Khan and his Mongol hordes, albeit wreathed in motorcycle exhaust instead of the frozen breath of steppe-raised warhorses.
The afternoon slipped by like a child’s top, spinning faster, a blur of shots and irish car bombs and the sound of raw engines, the freeze frame image of tourists photographing us as we roared through Soho and Tribeca, hopping from one dive bar to another, slowly working our way down until nothing was left but rock bottom and the Brooklyn Bridge, welcoming us home. It was sometime just before that final call, nestled down in the Lower East Side, that I found myself bellied up to another darkwood polished bar, awash with Jack Daniels and perma-grin and the camaraderie of my brothers, and that was when she walked through the door.
In my favorite film noir movies, black and white and sophisticated shadows, that moment would have been frozen, the music stopping suddenly, the camera panning and moving in for that sudden close-up, the blur focusing on her angelic face, transfixed. Perfect. That never happens in real life, of course, but there I was, mesmerized, the shot glass mid-air, forgotten.
She stood perfectly upright, poised, graceful, her delicately sculpted lips moving as she ordered a drink, her voice unheard by my dumbstruck ears, lost in the background music of the darkened bar. And then she smiled, and it was as if sunlight burst into that murky room, real sunlight, not that cruel echo of early spring that clothed the city like tarnished steel, but summer borne, full of life and hope, heavy with the smell of clover and the drone of drowsy bees, rich with the laughter of distant children. It was the kind of smile that makes you smile back, reflexively, even if you are not the subject of her conversation, the corner of your eyes crinkling helplessly, charmed.
I watched her the rest of the time we were there, between the jokes and the war stories with my brothers, stealing glances, amazed, hypnotized each time. Her hair was resplendent in the light from the window, and it was somehow perfect that the only patch of sunlight in the gloom would grace her thin, elfin face.
And then it was time to go. I had to say something, so I stumbled over and asked her name, and I think I smiled as she told me. I have no idea what I said in return, I can only hope it was something appropriate and gracious—hell, I may not have said anything at all, but only careened out of the door after the other Leathernecks.
But as we rode out across the bridge, the wind sharp now, cutting, as the sun dipped into the East River and the Saturday afternoon odyssey slipped into night, one thing kept repeating itself in my mind.
That, and the memory of that incredible smile, and the way it lit up that small dark room, somewhere in the back streets of the Lower East Side.
It’s funny how things work out. A couple of years ago, while I was deployed to Iraq, I wrote an article for U.S. Cavalry’s On Point website, under the nom de plume, ‘SGT Roy Batty’. It was called “The Rock Stars of Baghdad”, and was about Blackwater’s helicopter unit that was stationed nearby in the Green Zone. I was at a tiny base just across the river called FOB Shield, nestled inside the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior compound. Blackwater flew little Hughes Defender 500 helicopters to scout out the routes for their diplomat security teams, and we were fortunate enough to see them often. We called the helicopter’s “Little Birds”, after very similar helicopters that were flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or SOAR, in support of Special Forces units all around the world. We knew that many Special Forces members went on to work for Blackwater after they had retired from the military, and given the extraordinary way that the Blackwater Little Birds were flown, we suspected that some of the 160th SOAR pilots were flying the helicopters that buzzed us almost daily.
And what flying it was! I’ve never seen helicopters fly that way, before or since, and neither have you—unless you are a Green Beret or one of the few lucky enough to see Blackwater in action. They would appear on top of us, as if magically summoned, a black flash and a scream of an engine, literally at tree top level and flying incredibly fast. And the maneuvers! Jinking left and right, and then climbing into an impossible vertical hammer head, only to wheel about and race back down, pulling out at the last second—and all the while with men standing outside of the cockpit, scanning with machine guns for any sign of insurgents. As I wrote in my piece, “you can’t help but feel like you are in a really good action movie every time you see these guys, and how could you lose when you have guys and toys as cool as these on your team?”
Fast forward three years. Andrew Lubin, one of the editors from the now-shuttered ‘On Point’ website, forwarded an email to me from Deonna Laguma. She said that she was involved in writing a book about the Blackwater Little Birds, and wanted to know if she could include my article in it. I didn’t know much else about her, but I certainly remembered the élan and esprit de corps of the Blackwater pilots, and I felt honored that she would think of my old article. I immediately wrote back to her, enthusiastically saying yes, and then…..nothing. Time went by, and I forgot about the interaction.
Last week, I got a book in the mail. I opened up it up, and found a hardcover edition of “You Have to Live Hard to Be Hard: One Man’s Life in Special Operations” by Dan Laguna, with Michael S. Wren. And there on the cover, in full color, was one of Blackwater’s Little Birds, with what I initially thought was the Iraqi MOI behind it. Talk about bringing back some memories! I eventually figured out it wasn’t the MOI, but one of the buildings on the Green Zone, right next to Blackwater’s home, LZ Washington. There was no mistaking the Little Bird, though. Looking at it, I could almost hear the incredible scream of its engine in the distance, some ridiculous radio controlled toy on steroids. I immediately tore open the book, and started reading it.
The book is a quick read, written in the straight forward, matter-of-fact style used by military authors like Tom Clancy, Dan Brown or Clive Cussler. The book starts off almost right away with an account of the worse day that Blackwater Aviation had to endure in Iraq: the shootdown of one of their Little Birds, and the killing of the crew by insurgents. I had written about that day in my article, and I can still remember the absolute disbelief that my squadmates and I felt when we got the news. To us, the Little Birds were bulletproof, invincible—untouchable in that action hero sort of way. It was like hearing that Arnold Schwarzenegger got killed in one of his movies: it just didn’t happen. Put it this way: I have no pictures of those helos, because they moved too fast to capture with a digital camera. How could anyone ever shoot one down?
And that was where the book got personal. First, it was written by Dan Laguna, the brother of the stricken helicopter’s pilot, Art Laguna. Dan was there in Baghdad, also working for Blackwater’s Aviation unit, and was in the rescue mission. It’s very rare that you get an account of a combat mission written by someone who was both there AND a family member, and seeing the events of that day through Dan’s eyes, as he searched in vain for his slain brother, was touching in a way that I did not expect.
The other thing that got me was the pictures. No, not the black and white pictures in the middle of the book—the pictures that filled in the blanks of that military style writing. Its one thing to read “Black Hawk Down” or some other war novel, and to have the narrative clip along in that dry “just the facts, ma’am” way, knowing nothing about the location or the people involved, and to recreate the action in some cerebral version of a movie theater. It’s something else entirely to relive those events with the sights and smells of a place that you spent an unpleasant year and some change in; places you know and remember vividly, even when you don’t want to. Places that you’ve lost fellow Soldiers in, and what it felt like to have someone you know killed; instantly, brutally, and with that horrible sense of absolute finality.
There were a number of times that I just had to put the book down, and walk away.
Ultimately, the book was uplifting, in a real way. A good segment of the book focuses on another helicopter crash; one that the author suffered through while in the 160th SOAR. Dan recounts his recovery from severe burns and injuries in vivid detail. To hear how this man fought back through incredible pain and suffering to return to Active Duty and to keep flying Special Ops was honestly moving to me. It just drove home something I knew already—that it takes a special breed to go into Special Forces; a drive that surpasses certainly anything that I could muster.
That’s not to say that I didn’t have a minor gripe with the book. I would have liked to see a lot more detail about Laguna’s time in Special Forces, and especially with the 160th. Little is known about this highly classified unit and their missions, but, after all, the book’s subtitle is ‘One Man’s Life in Special Operations”, and there is precious little actually about Special Operations. Now, I understand that Laguna is legally bound not to write about classified missions, but surely with some paraphrasing or changed names or timelines it would have been possible to include some of 160th’s incredible exploits. Things like Operation Acid Gambit and the rescue of Kurt Muse from Modelo Prison in Panama by ‘Delta Force’ have been written about extensively by people like General Colin Powell, and clearly involved the 160th SOAR. There’s any number of missions that are publically known to have been carried out by the 160th, spanning across 30 years and places like the Persian Gulf, North Africa, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Afghanistan, and it would have been awesome to get the personal perspective of the a pilot who surely was intimately familiar with those operations.
Still, the book is a great read, and an uplifting one. More than just a recounting of experiences and technical details, it gives us a glimpse of what it takes to be a true Warrior—physically, spiritually, and emotionally. It is a sad truth of today that less than 1% of the American public has a direct member of their family serving in the military. It’s vital for a balanced society that we understand what our service members go through, respect what it takes to be a Warrior at the tip of the spear, and honor those who have gone in harm’s way while we sit, safe and ignorant of their sacrifices, back at home.
Dan and Art Laguna are those men.
That a few of my words would be included next to their struggles and achievements is beyond belief to me, and an incredible personal honor. It just goes to show you: it’s funny how things work out.
“Hey, ya wan’ somethin’ ta eat?”
Magic words for bikers and former Marines, and all the more potent when uttered by a woman. I turned to look at her, beer bottle poised halfway to my mouth, my ears perking up like those of an emaciated Doberman.
She asked me again, and flashed a brilliant smile at the end of the question, a sudden white expanse that lit up the small dingy bar so brightly that it was almost alarming. She had the kind of face that made you think you must have known her for a long time, but just had never gotten around to talking to before. Pretty, friendly, in a suburban kind of way. Nice, but with a sense of toughness just below the surface, in that wary way that women over forty seem to have always developed around themselves. One of the guys, y’know, or ,more likely, one of the guy’s wives.
“Uh, sure…” I answered.
She turned in a swirl of brunette, seventies curled hair, and disappeared into the next room, swallowed up by some magic show/kid’s birthday party/low level riot that was playing out somewhere in the back of the building. I went back to my beer and Jack Daniels, and playing the role of the day.
I was at the Marine Corps League on Staten Island, and the role of the day was the Big Bad Biker. The Marine Corps League doubles as the clubhouse of my motorcycle club, the Leathernecks—a small, motley group of characters whose only common denominator is that we are all former Marines.
I was there for a meeting or something; hell, I don’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter, since what we mostly do at the League is drink. The liquor is cheap, there are automatic weapons bolted to the wall, and a good amount of camaraderie floating around the old men hunched within the small, smoke choked room. The place fairly reeks of gun oil and tough love. To me, it feels something like home.
She reappeared a few minutes later, sliding a overloaded plate of party food to me between the Rastafarian warrior-poet on my left (Pointman, the Vice President of my MC), and the pudgy blonde chick on my right, the one I had been sort of listlessly flirting with a moment before. I turned to thank her, but she had already disappeared, those Farrah Fawcett curls fading into the grey smoke of the bar.
One of the things that always fascinates me is the way in which people meet. Oh, not for a business meeting or a school class, or even, necessarily, for a one night stand. No, I mean romantically, when that kernel grows into something meaningful and longer, when that woman who smiles upon you in the dark turns into the one person that rules your nights.
I mean, seriously, think about it for a minute. You might well not exist at all, if your mom had not happened to imbibe one too many beers while sitting next to your dad in that smoke filled rathskeller in Germany in 1962. And if he didn’t happen to make that one really funny joke, the one that made him laugh and look, just for a moment, like Sterling Moss—then it never would have happened. You, and all your brothers and sisters, would never have been. I guess that’s why I always like hearing about how people meet, of those fumbling words and hesitant trading of information, all with no inkling of the possible futures hanging in the balance of that first tentative smile
Some people talk about the banality of evil, I think about the banality of romance.
I saw her next two weeks later, at the League, in the middle of a riotous biker party, sponsored, of course, by my own MC. She pulled up a bar stool with a flip of her Charlie’s Angels hair, determinedly unfazed by the jostling biomass of testosterone around us.
“So, whatcha doin’?” She had this outrageous Brooklyn accent, as thick and delicious as a Rueben from some Crown Heights deli. It was both comfortingly familiar and intriguingly alien at the same time, as if all the New York movies of my childhood had fused together and somehow deposited this amiable gangster moll in my leather clad lap.
I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to batten down that accent, to learn it’s hidden rules and regulations, to copy the way that it slips and ducks around my teeth and tongue, clipped and abbreviated and with long elongated vowels at strange junctions, but all to no avail. I’m acutely aware that I’m way off in any attempt to copy it, the same way Air Force kids used to make fun of my British accent as a child, so I won’t even try here. Ironically, in those B-movies and TV shows, I hated the Brooklyn accent, but here, in person and with green/brown eyes behind the brogue, it was captivating. It also turned out that she worked for the NYPD, a fact that matched perfectly with her demeanour and that Robert De Niro accent.
We sat there most of the afternoon and into the early evening doldrums of that June evening, making easy small talk. The biker party raged and crashed around us, thick with June humidity and blaring sunshine through the swinging bar door, AC/DC cover songs swelling and fading in rhythmn, until the day finally retreated into the sunset amid the last few blatting exhausts. She was easy to talk to, in an aloof and slightly disconnected sort of way, so much so that I wasn’t sure if she was interested in me, or just happened to have an inordinately large amount of time to kill that day. That is, at least until Pointman suggested that we take a run to Coney Island.
Pointman, as I mentioned before, is the Vice President of my Motorcycle Club (MC). He, naturally, is a Marine–but unlike any Marine you have ever met. Pointman is Black–a notable oddity within diehard Biker clubs–with a massive wreath of braided dreadlocks streaming down around his shoulders. He always wears a red bandanna with his leather biker vest, which is filthy dirty, veritably screaming of long miles on the road and nights spent in dubious locales. The bandanna goes with the massive gold belt buckle that he always wears, and cowboy boots, and, upon occasion, battered cowboy hat. He is, in fact, a key member of the Federation of Black Cowboys–and even more improbably, is both a licensed social worker and a college professor.
He is the one man I know who channels Renaissance Man and schizophrenia better than I.
Anyway, Pointman ended up sitting with us, sucking on VSOP cognac and his everpresent Cuban cigar, its grey choking smoke wreathing around his beard, making him look like some post-apocalyptic african Gandalf.
“Cha-cha’s.” He grunted. “Margaritas.”
A splendid idea! Cha-chas is our hang-out on Coney Island, just a short walk down the boardwalk from the iconic parachute drop tower. It’s a delicous dive bar of a place, it’s walls strewn with signed portfolio pictures of unknown stars, dilapidated starfish, torn fishing nets, and the occasional bra and panties. It’s the only bar on the entire island where you can actually sit on the boardwalk, and so is a perfect place to people watch. Point and I had claimed it a couple of summers ago, and are in the process of slowly turning it into a biker bar, with the help of a couple of other local MCs.
She said she had never been on the back of a bike before; those sharp green/brown eyes direct and wide. She’d give it a try, though, and a few minutes later we were roaring across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, coasting down into the wide arms of Brooklyn. I love the Verrazano, as it has one of the best views in the entire City, and indeed, it was here that I got my first view of my new home. The bridge towers above the Hudson, linking Staten Island and Brooklyn, and from its apex it is possible to see everything from Coney Island, to the Statue of Liberty, to the Empire State Building. At night, particularly, that gently curving expanse feels like a glidepath, flying gracefully down into the scattered constellations below. Her arms were tight around me, and yet she moved perfectly in synch with the movement of the motorcycle and I. Pointman led the way, keeping within the rank structure of the MC, his dreadlocks flowing back from underneath his German war helmet, stogie chomped determinedly between his teeth. The City, wide and ripe and free in the early Summer evening, opened beneath us, and I had that delicious sense of not knowing where the night would lead.
………………..to be continued.