You need a bomb under your bed to get you up

 In Life Junctions, Middle East, Vignettes

Basra Trailers under a glowering sky 2005This is one of a series of Life Junctions posts. Each tells a story from my life that illustrates a wider human issue. This tale concerns trust and security. If you’re interested in writing or publishing stories from your own experiences or from family and friends, I can help you. Just get in touch.

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In Dodge City for quite a long time you couldn’t dodge.

They would aim for Faw Palace and, if they got their aim wrong or miscalculated in their rush to hide or fervour to fire, their mortars would fall short. Dodge City was in the way. Often they improvised mortars from the back of an ordinary pick-up truck. For a few weeks they fired between 6 and 7am.

“Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!”, said the man’s voice urgently, echoing from the different loudspeaker masts at slightly different times. “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!”

One moment you’re safely in the land of nod, accustomed to the snores of a room-mate and the thrump of the air-conditioning. Next you’re in a state of heightened consciousness, staring at the corrugated metal roof and listening for the incoming mortars. Six is the magic number. Sometimes a few mortars don’t fire, so you’re waiting for the fifth or sixth and they don’t come. Perhaps a minute or two has passed. Then, shortly, the reassuring voice states “All clear. All clear”.

We used this alarm to stir, get up after it finished, shower, go for breakfast; go to work, just like a normal alarm clock. Perhaps they could have fired slightly later, an extra five minutes. The metal trailers counted as hard cover so there was no need to rush to a concrete bunker, but I had my doubts about the roof’s effectiveness at stopping a fast-moving chunk of metal. Below was the mattress and a metal bedstead. If the roof was no protection, was there any point tipping yourself out of bed and rolling onto the dusty floor underneath? Not really. So you lay staring at the scant millimetres of metal and listening for the spread of the mortars as they landed. The firers would attempt to sight and correct their calibration from the first couple, so the impacts would move along a trajectory, moving over the park of trailers and pathways underneath. You could hear the impacts and feel them, but how far away and, crucially, were they getting closer? We called it Grandmother’s Footsteps.

As someone who believes in agency and free will, these few morning minutes were chastening. I’d already been mortared a fair amount in various places. One of the first times was one winter’s night in a pitch dark camp in the south. I was in the open when the alarms sounded, and so dropped immediately to lay prone on the muddy ground, as blast damage is more dangerous than the actual mortar. It was only as I was laying there that I realised I was underneath a towering wall of Hesco blocks. If the mortar was on the same side, it would offer no protection. If it was on the other side, it might blow the wall onto me. Hmmm. So, a weight of metal would fall or would not fall, and there was nothing I could do to stop it: no movement; no power of prayer; no wishful thinking. I was left with nothing but the purest fatalism. All I could do was affirm that I was doing something worthwhile and I’d lived a good life. In real life, our cherished free agency is often restricted by other people or circumstances.

Only once, after an extended alert and multiple impacts, did I decide to roll out of bed. From my sleepy dusty vantage point, I could see my room-mate had stirred not one jot under his covers and was still sleeping peacefully. It gave the lie to that line used to countless laggardly children on schooldays: “You need a bomb under your bed to get you up in the mornings.”

Here are two short videos that illustrate the type of mortar fire. The links worked at the time of posting, and there is some profanity, as you might expect.

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This post is part of the Life Junction series. Each part seeks to expand from a vivid fragment into a more general observation about values, in a way that might help the reader draw positive conclusions from events in their own life.

  1. The Shellscrape (Resolution & Temptation)
  2. Show Salute (Opportunity & Disruption)
  3. Dulce et Decorum Erat (Freedom & Confinement)
  4. Dancing on Fortress Walls (Honesty & Illusion)
  5. Inheriting a Relic (Vitality & Mortality)
  6. Karachi Hotel (Empathy & Judgmentalism)
  7. The Thunderclap (Courage & Fear)
  8. You need a bomb under your bed to get you up (Agency & Fatalism)
  9. On Meditation (Mindfulness & Confusion)
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