The first thing I noticed was his combat boots, cinched to the side of a camouflage backpack. The second, that morning in the airport security line of LAX, was his smooth shaved head. My first man crush I remember having as a child was on Mr. Clean; I’ve never gotten over it. He had bits of white tissue stuck to his bare scalp, and I resisted the urge to tell him. I observed him surreptitiously as we wound our way through the line. He was a good-looking guy, about my height, 5’6”, stocky, mustached man in his twenties, dressed in loose fitting jeans, a non-descript t-shirt, and sneakers. He seemed tired and sighed as he periodically wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Definitely straight,” I said to myself.
Finally ending the debate to speak or be silent raging in my head, I said, “You’ve got some bits of tissue stuck to the sides of your head.”
“Oh, Thanks,” he said, wiping the top and other side of his crown. He stopped and looked at me with an expression that read, “How’s that?”
“Still there,” I replied.
He wiped his head again, increasing the radius of the sweep with his hand. “How about now” his eyes said as he stood still.
I pointed to directly above his ear. “Right there,” I said.
He sighed, took his laminated ID he had in his hand to show security and scraped it over his stubbled skin like a waiter cleaning crumbs with a knife off a table cloth.
“Got it,” I said.
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” He replied.
We moved ahead a few feet in the line.
“Were you using paper to dry your head?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, checking his watch again. I’ve only got twenty minutes to get a plane and go have way around the world.”
“Where are you going?”
“To Afghanistan” he said flatly, his face turned to me in profile and his eyes staring off into the distance. “I was in Iraq, and now I’m going to Afghanistan.”
“Did they stop-gap you?”
“Ya mean, stop-loss me?”
“Yes, sorry, stop-loss.” God, I’m an idiot, I thought.
“Yeah,” he sighed. “Well technically they don’t do that any more…” his voice trailed off. “But, yeah, they stop-lossed me.”
“I’m sorry about that,” I said.
“Yeah, well,” he shrugged.
He looked down at the ground.
“Well thank you,” I said, words failing me.
“Uh uh,” he replied.
For a while we didn’t speak as we continued to work our way up to the screening area.
“What do you do,” I asked.
“I’m an E. O. D. Technician. I disarm bombs, mostly roadside bombs. I clip the wires on those.
My heart stopped and I thought, “Jesus.”
After a few beats of silence I asked, “Do you wear protection, or something?” I asked.
“Yeah, well, we’re supposed to, but I don’t really like to feel constricted. I like to move around. And you know, if one of those goes off…” he paused. “Well, it really just means there going to find bigger chunks of you…” He looked up at me and then down to his tennis shoes.
I followed his gaze, then looked at my own black, dress shoes. Finally I said, perhaps strangely, but sincerely, “That makes me want to cry.”
There was a long pause during which I regretted speaking of tears and emotion to a soldier off to war. Not very manly, I thought to myself.
We were nearing the screening area. I slid off my belt, rolled it up in a tight circle, and put in a shoe. The soldier bent down, backpack still on, and untied his shoe laces. I took my wallet, keys, and cell phone out of my pockets and placed them in my other shoe. The soldier removed what I assumed were dog tags from around his neck and placed his wallet and keys in his hands.
“There’s a movie about what we do right now,” he said abruptly, glancing at me. “Uh…” touching his empty hand to his forehead, as if reaching for the information he needed. “I can’t remember the name of it.”
“I can’t think of the name either, but I know which one you mean. Not Stop-Loss but the other one.”
“Yeah…ahh… I wish I could remember the name. Ah...anyway, it’ll give you a pretty good idea about what we do, although it’s not exact…some of the stuff is kinda close.”
“What’s not the same…in the movie?” I asked.
“Well sometimes the guy’ll just walk right up to the bomb and start working on it all alone. I would never do that. I work with a team. I wait for them.”
He grabbed a plastic bus tub and held it at his side as we waited for the other passengers to feed their belongings into the machine.
“You’ll have to see the movie.” he said, more like a request than a recommendation.
“Yes I will. I’ve been meaning to. I know it sounds shallow, but every time I’ve thought I’d go see it, I ask myself, am I in the mood for this?” I felt instantaneously guilty. Rushing to absolution I added, “I know the one you’re talking about though. The poster has a guy walking down a deserted street in all of his gear.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” He put the gray tub on the stainless steel table and put the stuff from his pockets into the bottom of it. He put his backpack on top and pushed it down trying to make it fit in the container.
I put my shoes in the bottom of my tub, removed my corduroy blazer and folded it neatly on top of my shoes. I took another bin, put my bag in it, removed the baggie with my toiletries and placed in on top.
“You have to remove your shoes” the ATA worker said to the soldier.
He removed his already untied shoes quickly. He approached his tub and realized there wasn’t room for them. I quickly push my blazer and shoes to one side of my bin.
“You can put them in here,” I said.
He handed me his shoes and I gently placed them on top of the nest I had created with my coat sleeves.
“Thanks. Thanks a lot,” he said. He turned and followed the workers directive to walk through the metal detector.
The boots strapped to his backpack were not clearing the opening of the imaging machine, so I pushed them down until they bag was sucked into the opening past the black vertical straps. The official waved me through and I was next to the soldier again on the other side of the imaging machine.
As he pulled his pack free of the bus tub, the container flipped over. I could the loose items at the bottom of the container fly in the air before falling with a clatter on top of the rolling metal tubes, the tub settling upside-down on top of them.
I kneeled on the ground to help retrieve the soldier’s belongings. The only item that had fallen through was a small, silver, oval medallion on a long chain. As I picked it up, I noticed it had Our Lady of Guadalupe on one side, and a prayer on the other.
“Here you are,” I said, placing the necklace gingerly in his palm.
He nodded at me, and then stood there as if waiting for something.
“My shoes,” he said.
“Oh, yes,” I replied, turning toward the steel rollers and extracting his shoes from my coat. Turning back, I walked to him and placed them in his open palms.
He looked me directly in the eye and said simply, clearly, “Thank you.”
I returned his gaze. “Sure,” I said.
I went back toward my belongings, which were now being pushed ahead by the steady stream of personal effects being spat from the machine. I quickly stacked my gray bins on top of one another. As I walked them to the tables near the exit, I saw the soldier striding toward the gates, the bright light from the windows wrapping around his silhouette.