The story was over after the last free man, wearing a brand new U.S.-issued striped shirt, flip flops, and overlong khakis rolled up around the ankles, sat down in one of three grumbling buses. So it was time for us to get back into our matte black Rhino. My crew consisted of a local videographer, soundman, and translator. There were two Iraqi TV crews, four Iraqi newspaper reporters, two still photographers, and an Arabic-speaking Australian who works for National Public Radio. The remaining seats in the bus were taken by three Army translators and six soldiers. Our lead Humvees took off and we were on our way.
I must stop the narrative at this point to talk about the heat in Iraq. This is my third time in the Cradle of Civilization, but my first summer here. The closest thing I have to compare to this type of heat is Arizona or Nevada on a late day in July. You just can't breathe. The sun seems to stay in the sky all day pushing down on your head and shoulders. The sand below throws the heat back up at your feet and hands. My watch has a thermometer -- it reads 110 degrees. Imagine being a turkey dressed in a flak jacket and shoved in an oven.
You learn to hydrate in Iraq. Empty half-liter plastic bottles litter the landscape. I drink one every two hours when I'm not running around. I was drenched in sweat by the time we climbed back into that Rhino Runner. I felt like a microwave, zapping everything I touched. Heat just radiated from my body. The black flak jacket came off as soon as I sat down. I grabbed a liter of water and started chugging. Without a rumble, the bus pulled away and we were on the road.
Forty minutes later, we were stopped on Route Irish in the most dangerous section of Baghdad. On many days, IED's line the road. At times, so do bodies. Someone on the bus heard a gunshot. I didn't. My iPod was turned up as Michael Stipe chanted "It's The End of the World as We Know It" (Perhaps I should have looked at my playlist before I got on the plane at LAX). We all found out that the tire of our indestructible bus was not so indestructible. I haven't heard if the soldiers found a bullet in the deflated rubber, but without a doubt our Rhino was hobbled. The tire was flat.
The temperature inside the bulletproof behemoth wasn't much different from the air outside. A steady 95 sweltering degrees. And since our detour left us in Ahmiriyya, known as the most dangerous neighborhood in Baghdad, I felt a compulsion to pull that ballistic lifesaver affectionately known as my flak jacket over my head and wrap its black Velcro arms around my waist. In other words, the microwave was back in action.
Our Humvee escort surrounded the wounded Rhino. Traffic behind us was stopped as three soldiers put on their lids, grabbed their guns, and opened the door of our bulletproof cocoon. They had a job to do. A flat tire was in need of oxygen.
Fifteen minutes pass. My watch reads 97 degrees.
The Rhino rises. The Rhino falls.
Twenty-three minutes pass. The temperature goes up 2 degrees.
ABC's cameraman (I won't use his name for his safety) pulled out his knife and started cutting apart the box that held our lunch. Don't let anyone tell you different, MRE's are durn tasty these days. I didn't eat everything in the box, but everyone ate the M&M's. After 10 minutes of cutting, everyone in the bus had their own cardboard fan. And a few of us were praying.