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Excerpt, Essay 3, Ceremonies

(An essay about the life’s ceremonies, planned and accidental.)

As a low-ranking airman, [during exercises] I was usually placed on night-time bomb build-up detail, assembling the practice bombs similar to the bombs that in real war we would hang off our fighters and drop on the Enemy. I liked war games, and I adored bomb build-up. If my day job had its monotony—even today, sometimes, while watching television, I feel my hands unconsciously twisting safety wire around a bolt—bomb build-up was, in theory, stultifying. All I did for hours on end was bolt together huge metal parts which had been assembled so frequently that their threads were shiny and thin; I was not even allowed to insert the (inert) fuses—though I suppose had I stayed on this detail long enough, I would have graduated to that task as well. But after my first, disastrous exercise—no one had told me England was bone-cold at night, and that I should wear double uniforms and line my chemical warfare suit with the liner from my field jacket, and to my mortification I ended up in the “combat infirmary” being thawed out with hot tea—I came to look forward to my shifts in the bomb dump.

During war games, every night near 6 p.m. we on the bomb-buildup team were shuffled by truck out to a forest primeval far enough away from the rest of the base to protect the airplanes and personnel in the event of a munitions accident. (Working with live bombs either inures you to life’s vagaries or makes you very anxious; career munitions specialists tend to drink a lot.) Taciturn sergeants patted us down for matches, lighters, or anything else forbidden around live bombs, then ushered us toward pallet after wooden pallet of unassembled bombs, most of them immense, 2,000 pound munitions which when bolted together were approximately the size and shape, and twice the weight, of bottle-nose dolphins.

For my full twelve-hour shift, I straddled bombs by the weird yellow glare of portable halogen lights, whose stinking gas generators coughed so loudly all night they silenced all conversation. I wouldn’t have spoken to anyone, in any event: I was a human metronome, swinging from bomb to bomb with a wrench in my hands to tighten bolts, only pausing at midnight or thereabouts to gulp down some mystery-meat MRE, heated up on the engine of a bomb jammer or scooped cold out of its plastic pouch, and to swill down more coffee several hours later for a caffeine jolt that would last until the truck picked up us up at 6 a.m. to drop us at the chow hall, where we would gobble breakfast and then stagger to the barracks for a beer in the television room before going to sleep.

Sometimes truckloads of “casualties” would rumble by during build-up, and I would stop to wave at fellow airmen tricked out ghoulishly in the gauze bandages, painted-on bruises, and fake blood of moulage (a pretty good deal: they spent the entire exercise being “transported” to “infirmaries,” or even better, were declared dead and got to go back to their barracks and watch television until the “war” was over). Every once in a while a giant truck would roll into our area to pick up the assembled bombs or drop off more bomb parts. But by and large bomb buildup was quiet, mind-absorbing work, at once a welcome departure from my daily activities and yet fundamentally engrossing. Even with fake fuses and inert bombs and a completely confected war, I sensed the importance of getting this task right, so that if I ever had to, I could do this for real; the simple task blotted out loneliness, doubt, sadness, uncertainty, and ennui, and its repetitions even distanced us from the mayhem and destruction a live, assembled bomb could, in practice, wreak.

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