A friend’s teenage daughter shared an update on her relationship issues, to which I shared one of my favorite “Bluntcards” with oddly astute advice: “Love is like a fart. If you force it, it is probably shit.”
“Take it from someone who almost discovered the wisdom of this statement after too many preflight plums in Afghanistan. The idea of plums and the reality of their effect has forever made me suspicious of the desire for such fruit…”
The background of the story, I realized, had only been shared verbally in conversation… therefore, I shall take you on a little trip that started in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in the winter of 2004-05…
We were stationed at Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, and provided VIP support for much of the northeastern and eastern part of Afghanistan. As luck would have it, my aircraft – the one I had been assigned to when it was fresh from the factory in 1997, 96 26696 – was part of our small 5-ship company, and it was on this aircraft that I logged most of my Afghanistan time.
At some point during that winter, we were tasked to provide support in providing transportation for some delegation visiting Bamiyan for only six hours. There was only one helicopters’ worth of passengers, but we provided chase support with our bird empty in case the other helicopter had mechanical issues or the passenger manifest turned out to be larger than submitted. After a short flight to Kabul to pick up the passengers, we headed north to the small town which was overshadowed by cliffs and the empty voids where the famed Buddha statues one stood.
Shutting down for a prolonged period of time at the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team’s small outpost was always a treat. Run by the New Zealand Defense Force, or “Kiwi’s,” they were well-known for their hospitality and food. An earlier trip found us on a Kiwi-run tour of the town and the Buddha site, with the added bonus of being allowed to venture up the steep steps carved in the cliff face to overlook what little the Taliban had left of the 1,200-year-old site. On this particular trip, however, we were happily confined to the outpost with the promise of dinner.
Enter the plums.
I spotted them as soon as I entered the dining facility. A bowl of lovely, cool, fruit the color of inviting and inevitable danger. Missing these beloved morsels of dietary purity, I had not one, but as many as four within the first hour of our wait. So good were these fruits, that any consideration of their particular aftereffect was joyously disregarded.
Who am I kidding? The thought never crossed my mind. They were good.
Around dinnertime, I passed on the main course. I foolishly thought I had merely consumed my fill of fruit, but this turned out clearly be wrong as we headed back out to get the aircraft ready for the return leg.
My stomach began sending the first signs that something was amiss. In retrospect, there was nothing wrong at all – the plums had worked quite well and as I was putting on my body armor, survival vest, and helmet, the functionality of the fruit became quite clear. Looking around, relief could not be had due to the crowd of Afghans curiously watching from the perimeter established by the Kiwi soldiers. For a brief moment, the consequences of leaving a fertilized pile of what would eventually become a cherished plum tree were considered, but having such an international audience proved enough to reconsider and deal with it.
Our climbing turn swept us over the ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola and eastbound down the valley towards Charikar; it was at this point, over the rubble of another of Khan’s conquests, that I realized the true horror of my previous indiscretion. My gastrointestinal tract began to convolute itself into what felt like the creation of internal balloon animals.
As the flight progressed, the sweating started. There was snow on the ground, my M-60 was pulled in and stowed, and the windows were closed, but I was experiencing chills while perspiring in growing discomfort.
The balloon animals had turned into a full-on circus inside me. I asked the pilot how far we were, without being explicit and clarifying estimated time of arrival at Bagram. “10 minutes,” was his reply, to my relief… but 9 minutes and 58 seconds later, we were still in the valley.
“Oh, I thought you meant from the checkpoint were lead breaks off and returns to Kabul…” was his response when I queried, tersely, why we were still in the valley.
My stomachs’ noises resonated throughout my body, increasing in intensity and frequency, much like I imagined what labor pains would feel like.
“Look,” I stated over the internal communication system (ICS). “Here’s the deal. I need to take a shit. Bad. I need a no bullshit time before we get back to Bagram.”
The wonderful thing about the ICS is that one has to push the button to talk. Laughter can be heard clearly, though, despite the noise of the helicopter. Interestingly enough, both smiling, empathy, and even pity can be heard through a headset. “10 minutes, Mike. Hang in there.”
By now, the flight has taken an indiscernible amount of time. Einstein would be proud of my experiences: time slowed, expanded, and contracted in sync with my intestines. I began looking around for a bag and even asked the crewchief sitting on the right side if he had one. No. In times of crisis, however, an empty ammo can be viewed upon as a suitable substitute. Out went 400 rounds of linked 7.62mm rounds both cans sat beside my seat, prepped in case of an emergency.
At some point – probably around the time when I decided that if we got shot down at that moment, my life would improve – I apologetically informed the crew that I wasn’t going to make it. I unbuckled from my seat, maneuvered around my gun, and took off my vest… thankful that our bird was without passengers.
As I unfastened the elastic band under the body armor, something changed. The pressure was gone, and I felt relatively normal. Keeling in the cabin, with a puzzled look on my face, I realized that the band was part of the problem, and once gone, provided some comfort. Once again I took my seat, thankful that I had a reprieve.
“Ok, here’s an update,” I calmly told the other three crewmembers. “I am sitting behind my gun. I am secured, with my vest and armor sitting on the seat next to me. I can make it, but with NO holding or diverting. Short of declaring an emergency, if we go straight back, I will be ok.”
Laughter again. “Mike, we’re going straight back… I’m doing all I can.” I lookd up to the cockpit and saw the turbine gas temperature (TGT) for both engines in the 30-minute limit. Yes… yes, he was indeed doing all he can.
We crossed the threshold of the raggedy Soviet runway well above the typical approach airspeed, and the turning deceleration minimized the trademark shudder that Black Hawks experience during deceleration. A miniature roll-on landing to the steel planking that was our parking area was halted only long enough for me to safely, but expeditiously exit the aircraft and head towards the Porta-potties located by the hangar…
Needless to say, I made it. In the aviation community, the alternate ending for similar events are tales which will never be lived down, but in this case, plums lost to TGT… and one pilot will never have to buy his own drinks in my presence.