I’ve dreamed of visiting all kinds of lush tropical jungles and white sand beaches, but somehow, I always end up in the sorts of places that most people would rather escape. Most of the time I end up in these spots because of work, but sometimes, I choose them. During one of the work-related stints — on assignment for the Santa Barbara Independent — I found myself sitting in the incredibly drab, featureless environs of the Baghdad International Airport. Dust-covered concrete and gravel, and weathered plastic chairs were about the only thing there was to behold in that place, lodged in the middle of the 65 square-mile expanse of the U.S. Army’s Victory Base Complex. There I was, staring off into the cool darkness on the vast lands surrounding Saddam’s former palace complexes, waiting for a platoon of Army guys who had just arrived to finish picking up their baggage from the loading area so I could throw my bag on an outbound palate, when someone nudged me in the shoulder.
“You Brian Schneider?” a guy in a pair of khaki cargo pants and a flannel button-down queried in a southern drawl, as he eyed me carefully.
I told him I wasn’t, but I guess I resembled some guy he had worked with in Turkey a few months earlier. The man, who was a contractor for some company that installs internet systems in the military’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) centers all over the Middle East and Europe, was waiting for a flight out of Baghdad so that he could get to Germany. We chatted idly for a few minutes before he and the younger man he worked with — both of them were prior service dudes who had been to Iraq before — rushed off for their next three hour wait.
For me, this was only the first three hour wait of that particular journey, and, in true military fashion, I was to do a bit more rushing and nearly a day of waiting before I got to my next destination (which was supposed to be Kuwait, but we ended up making an unscheduled and grossly delayed stop in Qatar…but that’s another story). Dusting off one of the battered chairs in the outer waiting area — no more than a corrugated steel roof over a concrete slab, lit dimly by a few buzzing, flickering flourescents — I pulled a book and a pack of cigarettes out of my bag, knowing those would be the only diversions I would have for a while.
Just as I was getting into a particularly engrossing bit in the book detailing the 1983 terrorist bombing at the Beirut Marine barracks, a man who looked to be about 40, wearing the worn-in camo baseball cap and goatee typical of many a Southerner, sat down a few feet away. “Eve’nin’,” he said as I looked up from my book.”
“How’s it goin’, man,” I replied, looking back down at the book, but deciding after a moment or two to abandon it. Something about the way his eye twinkled as he let fly a long brown stream of dip spit into an empty plastic coke bottle told me that he had a story or two to tell. We started our conversation like many are started, by introducing ourselves to one another and clearing up where each of us hailed from. He smiled knowingly when I told him I was from Santa Barbara.
“That’s a party town, boy. Name’s Brett Bailard. I’m from Texarkana,” he drawled, propping his feet up on a dusty, broken chair, “but before that I lived in Visalia, California.” As it turned out, he was from neither of those places originally, but had begun life in some remote corner of Oklahoma, getting his one way ticket out of a go nowhere town by excelling at baseball. “Man, I could throw the hell out of a ball. As soon as I graduated high school I got picked up by a AAA team in Visalia. That was all the encouragement I needed to get the hell out of Oklahoma, so I packed up my ’69 Firebird and hit the road.”
Like many a young man, he expressed his appreciation for the sweetness of being away from home for the first time by partying like a rock star after each and every game. Luckily, most of the games were played out of town, so he never got too familiar with any one set of law enforcement officials, although there were a few towns whose authorities took note when the team’s bus rolled down Main Street on their way to a game. After one such game in Southern California, Brett and a few of his buddies, already well into the sauce, decided they’d take a spin out to Vegas for a day or two. “Hell, we were already hammered, and it was only a three hour drive the way we were movin’.”
Having won their game and managing to arrive in Vegas without getting arrested by the California Highway Patrol, they were all pretty stoked about how the evening was shaping up. The only thing missing — namely, a Volkswagen van full of hot, drunk co-eds — rolled up next to their car at a light shortly thereafter, so there wasn’t much left to do but ride out the good wave until dawn.
“Man, I picked me one a them girls — she was smokin’ hot — and we partied all night. I don’t even remember going to the wedding chapel. My buddies tol’ me I was so wasted they had to prop me up to keep me on my feet. The preacher said, ‘Do you take this woman to be your wife?’ and I pulled up the back of her skirt, got a good look at that fine ass, and said, ‘I do!
Vegas hotels are known for their blackout curtains, probably because most people who do it up the right way end up needing them, if only for an hour or two during midday. Such was the case with my new friend, who didn’t end up rising from his drunken slumber until well after the sun had begun its descent towards nightfall. Blinking his eyes sleepily as he rubbed his throbbing temples, he looked over to see the sweet piece of ass laying next to him, half-buried in a pile of twisted, beer-stained sheets. “She looked so good! I thought to myself, ‘Boy, you can see pretty good through them beer goggles sometimes!'”
It was then that he noticed the ring on her finger. Nudging her shoulder, he gradually got her to wake up, and a warm, understanding smile spread across his red face. “I tol’ her, ‘Honey, I mean I had a good time, an’ that’s cool, but I can’t be messin’ around with no married woman.’ Man, that chick looked me square in the eye and said, ‘Take a look at your finger, honey.’ I let out a yell that’d curl your hair when I realized what had happened, but there won’t much I could do about it then.” Meanwhile, his buddies, who could hear his surprised mid-afternoon shriek, could be heard howling with laughter in the room next door.
The next few days were sheer bliss, and the two stayed cozily within the confines of their room for most of it. “The sex was great for about eight days. Then we realized that we couldn’t stand each other,” he said. As soon as he got back to Visalia, Brett Seized upon the momentum of a Vegas trip that still hadn’t quite fizzled and got busy filing the divorce paperwork. Unfortunately for him, his new bride made good use of her marriage certificate while she had the opportunity and gained access his bank account. But the ball (and chain) kept rolling, and 28 days and $1,500 later, he was again a free man…for a little while.
Grinning broadly as he recalled his misspent youth, he told the story of the next woman to capture his heart, this time convincing him to procreate a couple of times. “You know how it is. You get married young and ride the bull.” She was a charming young model, although I didn’t bother to ask what kind, and he was working as a builder at the time. Since this was during the housing boom of the late 80s, he was making nearly $15,000 per month. “Don’t never let nobody tell you that models is rich. They’re broker’n hell. Gold diggers, all of ’em. When the bottom fell outta the housing market, I was down to making $3,500 a month, but she couldn’t stop spending money.” After she’d nearly bled him dry of money, she still wasn’t satisfied with their lifestyle, so he spent his few remaining pennies on what anyone would have — a divorce.
A C-17 thundered overhead as we were reminded to check the time. Getting stuck at Baghdad International Airport is common enough, but doing so by missing your flight is a terrible way to start an already inconvenient journey. Brett took a moment to dig through his bags to find a fresh can of dip, nearly knocking over his spit bottle in the process. “Aw shit!” he cursed, quickly gaining control over the container of thick, smelly brown liquid as he continued his tale. “I was workin’ in a little town in New Mexico, and a buddy a mine kep’ askin’ me to meet his sister. But she was all the way in Texarkana — twelve hours away!” He never did end up making the trek out to Texarkana, but when the sister came to visit, it just so happened that she was a very attractive young lady. “She was pretty damn hot, so I got sucked into another one,” he said with a resigned chuckle as he rolled his eyes.
Moving all the way to Texarkana turned out not to be too much of a chore, but staying married to his friend’s sister was, apparently. Brett found himself single again, alone in a city that for centuries has been a stopover for travelers and lost souls. Eventually, he set up an automotive repair shop on the outskirts of town as a way to put meals on his plate. One day, a woman whose car he had just fixed told him that her daughter’s truck wasn’t working and asked him to come by the house to take a look at it. “Then she started talkin’ about her four kids and her fucked up life and all. I just didn’t have the heart to say no. I stopped by after work one day and got the truck runnin’ in about two hours. All the sudden, this fine ass blonde walked outta the house and I got sucked in again!” She was 19 at the time, but that was plenty old enough for ol’ Brett, and the two got hitched forthwith.
Oddly enough, now that she’s 26 and has borne him three children, they still seem to be getting along alright. “She’s, uh, inquisitive, to make sure I ain’t out fuckin’ around. She’s also good with money and I’ll be damned if she ain’t a great mother.” With a glimmer of mischief in his eye, Brett warned me to be careful, lest I suffer the same fate he did by getting sucked into a marriage. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had an ex wife under my belt, too, and accepted his words as kind advice from one more senior than I.
A few moments later, orders for his flight to one of Iraq’s more desolate Army bases, where he was going to fix MRAPs — the huge, dump truckish armored vehicles soldiers travel around in to avoid being blown up by insurgents — squawked over the loudspeaker. Brett walked off into the moonless night toward the next hangar, and as I waited for my flight to arrive, I wondered how this marriage would play out for him. Would he stick by his stable sweetie who seemed to be keeping his life in order, or would he find himself in some Toledo dive, asking the bar tender how she’d like to be the next ex Mrs. Bailard?