Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Packing...again

It appears that my first few entries will deal with Madagascar.  One could certainly pick a worse subject to begin a blog.

I’ve spent the past couple weeks preparing for an upcoming trip to that fantastic mini-continent.  Packing is part of that process.  Now, this is not my first expedition.  Although I am terribly excited about this trip, in the broader timeline of my life it is but the latest in a series of adventures, all of which required packing.  So packing is nothing new to me.  I have a fairly regular list of things to bring, but the exact list changes a little each trip, both to match the specific needs of the mission and because I learn new and better ways to do things.  I can’t help but get a bit nostalgic at times like these.

Although there are some new items going into my pack, most are old friends that have traveled with me before.  A tent I bought in New Zealand, a small shovel that’s broken soil in three continents, a shirt that circled the globe in 2011.  Perhaps the oldest item of the bunch is a knife that’s been with me since 2005, including two tours in Iraq.  The knife has a story of its own that I won’t divulge here.  Suffice it to say that it suggests an interesting comparison between my first grand expeditions to Iraq, and my recent ones to places like Panama, Uganda and now Madagascar.

Packing for a Marine deployment is a journey in itself.  Those who have experienced it know what I mean.   It’s a simple process that goes something like this:

Step 1—pack everything that you know from common sense, training and experience you will need to survive and do your job the next few months.  Feel self assured and maybe a bit smug that you are ready, possibly ahead of the other Marines in your unit.  Stare in satisfaction at your well organized pack and give yourself a pat on the back for having your shit together.

Step 2—get handed a list of things your command has decided you need.  Notice dishearteningly how different this list is from your own.  Realize you are not as shit hot as you thought you were, feel overwhelmed and panic just a little.

Step 3—with precious little time left, rush to supply to check out your extra gear.  Find that a hundred other people had the same idea as you, stare in disbelief at the line wrapping around the outside of the building, hang your head, whimper a feeble complaint and take your place at the back.  Once inside, fill a shopping cart full of gear you may or may not recognize, and will almost certainly not use, like ultra cool combat sunglasses.  Reflect on the fact that you can’t wear sunglasses because you already wear prescription glasses.  Realize that fighting the system is harder than just giving in, sigh, and check them out anyway.

Step 4—race to the PX to spend your own hard earned money on things your command says you need but does not supply for you, like earplugs and whistles.  You need the earplugs to make sure the sounds of combat, if it ever comes to that, don’t damage your ears.  You need the whistle to make sure that if you get into a bad situation, like, say, combat, you can tell all your friends whose ears will be plugged.

Step 5—spend several nerve wracking hours using your Tetris skills to force a shopping cart full of gear and two grocery bags full of trinkets into your already full pack.  Debate with yourself the merits of alternative packing strategies—do I fold the flak jacket and stuff it inside the pack, or wrap it around the outside?   Then assist your hapless friend, who decided he absolutely needs to bring a football but can’t find a place to fit the damn thing.

Step 6—the next morning lug your full pack to a parking lot and get in formation with a hundred other people.  Then (and this is the truly horrifying part) dump everything out, spilling the fruits of yesterday’s labor out of your pack and onto the asphalt, so a staff NCO can come by and make sure everyone has their sunglasses and whistles, and one set of cammies soaked in carcinogenic insecticides.  Repack yet again.  Once the inspection is over, take everything you know you won’t need, like those sunglasses and the toxic cammies you don’t dare handle without gloves, and hide them in a secret storage unit you paid for with your own money.  Repack yet again.  Pause in cosmic wonder at the fact that you spent money to buy things your command wants you to take, and then spent more money hiding the fact that you are not taking them.  Rage at the injustice.  When the suicidal thoughts start to creep in, the process is complete and you are ready to leave.

Needless to say, packing now is much easier.  But the inventory has changed a bit.  Notably missing are the weapons and armor.  I’ve exchanged my rifle, bayonet, body armor and gas mask, for camera, binoculars, hand lens and forceps.  Instead of heavy boots meant for head stomping I wear my raggedy hiking boots with holes forming in the bottom.  My most essential piece of gear in Iraq—a well worn Arabic dictionary—has been supplanted by field guides and write-in-the-rain notebooks.  For the most part, I’m glad of all these changes.  Except the Arabic dictionary—I’m rather fond of that thing, and wouldn’t mind getting some more use out of it.

Like any veteran whose war has passed from deadly present to history, it’s hard not to miss things at times.  Even the misery of gear inspections occupies a certain soft place in my heart.  But not everything has changed.  I still get to go to faraway places, meet new people, learn new languages and experience my share of misery and adventure.  Occasionally I even get to rage at some silent injustice.  Most importantly, I still get to test myself, discover and learn on a daily basis.  And I still have my knife.