As I lay here in my bed, unable to sleep, I got to thinking about how to describe this place that I’m existing in. You can see it pictures, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone describe how it sounds. Everywhere I’ve lived, in my mind, I can hear a unique set of sounds, almost like a scent that carries you back to your past.
When I was growing up in Long Island, as I fell asleep, I used to hear the traffic rushing by on Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway, that first highway that carried me off into my life’s adventures. The other sound I remember is the long, drawn out whistle of the trains as they crossed over the roads, two blasts when they passed through a crossing, one deep one as the Long Island Rail Road trains pulled into Bethpage or Farmingdale stations, back when the diesels still rumbled through.
Later, I lived for a time on the shore of a small lake, hidden away in the hills. At night, a tremendous chorus of frogs would awake, and there would be the sound of small waves lapping on the shore, punctuated by an occasional slap as a bass went after an insect. In the winter, the wind would sometimes howl through the little valley, shaking the house that my brothers and I had built, causing it to creak and sway. Throughout the night, there would be a muted rumble or boom as the ice cracked and heaved under the frost.
Here, the first thing that comes to mind is the muted growl of generators. They’re everywhere, constant, continuously running, 24 hours a day. They are joined by the steady thrum of the air conditioners, all day long, making life tolerable. These two sounds are a constant.
Intermittently, other sounds break the background hum. A group of shots, some quick and sharp, a light machine gun test firing. Others are deep, rhythmic thuds, a 50 cal opening up on the highway, firing warning shots at an errant vehicle.
The engineers blow charges several times a day, destroying capture munitions. BOOM BOOM BOOM, each one interspaced by a few seconds. When you hear the second, or the third, you roll over and go back to sleep, or like the other night, you keep playing poker after counting the flash to bang, knowing that, even if it is indirect fire, it’s more than a kilometer away.
Occasionally, a muted CRUMP will come rolling across the base. Somewhere, not too far away, a man has decided to give up his life, and has driven a car full of old artillery rounds directly into a group of Iraqi policemen manning a checkpoint. When this happens, you can expect to hear the roar of the MEDEVAC choppers go screaming overhead a few minutes later, the pilots and crew in a desperate race to save some ones life. As they pass over head, the wave of sound momentarily drowns everything else around you. If you’re in the TOC, the radio kicks to life, call signs echoing, cries for help filled with static, the calm, cool professionalism of the rescuers, riding over their panic.
The one sound that makes you jump is the sharp, flat CRACK of a rocket landing nearby, hurting your eardrums, showering an area with shrapnel, which pings off metal structures, and chips dust off brick ones. You can hear the shrapnel wiz past you, like some kind of angry bee. Better you hear it, though, because that means it missed you.
The last sound that I will never forget is the sound of the Shamal, as it comes roaring out of the desert, carrying fine sand, grit, and even pebbles up through the air. The air itself is hot, and the debris striking everything sounds like sleet.
Till my dying day, I’ll close my eyes, and listen, and hear.
By John of Arabia