Chunks of mud brick rained down on Carter as he kissed the ground to dodge the bullets tearing through the compound wall. Shit! The tangos had a heavy MG. With one hand he adjusted his Kevlar helmet, shifted out of whack in the dive.
He grabbed his M4 rifle, his knee pushed up and he dashed around the corner with his battle buddy on his heels. They joined two others behind a Bradley fighting vehicle steadily making its way up the street as bullets clanged off the armor. The tank’s side turret, mounted with a .50 caliber chain gun, returned fire at the al-Qaeda position as the tracks kept rolling and semi-crouched ground pounders trotted to keep up with their shield.
He huffed with deep heaves, pushing aside his nut-shriveling fear at the painful sound of the tango’s heavy MG shots ringing off the tank, lapping at his ear drums like jackhammers. A tango, face covered in a red checkered shumoch, popped his head and rifle out of a window from an angle where the Marines were exposed. Carter popped off two rounds from his M4 without missing a beat and the tango fell dead back into the house.
His sailor battle buddy pointed to their periphery. Carter peeked in time to see the mortar crew mad-dashing toward an alley with access to an open yard. They crossed the street, reeking of blood and shit, at a run past the bodies of two tangos with AK-47s still in hand and ruby caverns where their faces used to be.
The Marines were in this alone today. Where the fuck were the security forces?
“Corpsman!” someone desperately shouted, and his sailor battle buddy smack-patted his shoulder, saying ‘Come on!’ And they took off. This was the eleventh day of the offensive and they still had three quarters of Ramadi to clear. The cops they’d trained and heavily armed over the last two months were nowhere to be seen.
After the last tangos died or took off, their company lost three Marines killed and five wounded that day. Carter had an epiphany on the ride back to the FOB. If fighting for this country wasn’t worth it to the locals, then he sure as hell wasn’t getting blown up for this shit.
But he still had to finish his tour…
“You’re in for a treat, dude,” Raccoon said (so named because his favorite hat had ears). Six guys were crammed into an old VW van that reeked of weed and peyote. Carter had never been to ‘Billy Madison College,’ as they called the warehouse where Raccoon’s friends put on underground punk shows. He was now a resident of Hemingway House, a collective that grew legal weed, let people crash on their couches, and generally helped each other out.
The paint-cracked, dented VW van pulled up to the warehouse where a crowd had already gathered. Guys and girls sipped beers and Four-Locos in paper bags, smoked cigarettes and an assortment of retro pipes, and Carter even caught a whiff of a pot cloud hovering over the crowd. These lovers of the DIY punk scene were milling around, socializing while the bands unloaded their gear around the back.
People in the crowd shouted to greet friends that they recognized. A 6’5 punk with a Pabst Blue Ribbon ball cap and a full beard on his smiling cheeks appeared from the crowd to greet Raccoon with a lumberjack’s hug. He even wore a green and black flannel shirt adorned with the buttons and patches of different underground punk bands no one’s ever heard of.
Raccoon freed himself from the lumberjack punk’s embrace and pointed to Carter. “Carter, meet Party Marty.” Party Marty beamed at him and offered his hands with a ‘What’s up, man. Anybody who’s cool with Raccoon is cool with me.’ Marty took them inside the warehouse to give Carter the noob’s tour. They stepped into a small office lobby converted into a box office. Posters of bands that had performed here on sleeping-bag-and-shoestring-budget tours covered the walls.
Carter’s attention was focused on the fallen angel eyeing him playfully from behind the counter.
Long, raven hair worn in the trademark Bettie Page style accented her olive-tan complexion. Subtle red lip stick clashed with her curious green eyes. A black Misfits t-shirt met the tattered denim skirt hugging her hourglass curves, and her slender legs sported black leather Doc Marten boots. He wasn’t sure whether he wanted to compare his vinyl records with hers or eat her face.
“Five bucks,” she said. She held the stamp and ink pad expectantly. Carter fumbled in his pocket and pulled out wadded Ones.
“Aw, damn,” he said disappointedly, “I’ve only got three…”
She shrugged. “It’s cool. Just donate what you have.” And he did.
Party Marty and Raccoon led him into the main warehouse, magnificently adorned with punk murals of guitars, skulls, flowers, band logos, the giant circled jagged A that was the anarchy symbol. Christmas lights lined the walls and people were kicking it, drinking their booze inside and passing a peace pipe just outside the loading bay. It was incredible.
Carter looked back to the box office to notice that beautiful punk queen sneaking a peek at him. She blushed and smiled.
When the bands began to play, over a hundred people crowded into that warehouse. They jumped, danced, fist pumped, moshed, and the music vibrations from the loud stage speakers flowed through them like ripples in water. Carter was dancing with the Hispanic Bettie Page who’d been eyeing him, and before long they were making out. She was intoxicating to look at and to touch.
That’s when it hit him. The fucked up war, Hemingway House, this network of people literally entertaining themselves, the donations, and the beautiful chaos of the music. It finally occurred to him. No need for government. No need for authority…
Carter was months out of the Corps, but he was finally home.
Marines photo courtesy of Eternal Spectator. VLHS photo courtesy of OC Weekly.