Saturday, July 16, 2011

Independence Day

Monday, July 4th, 2011 was a slightly unusual day for the 10th Mountain Division Band. Even though Kandahar Air Field is home to personnel from many different countries, the Americans are going to celebrate. Many people in the unit were spending the morning involved in a big re-enlistment ceremony: a big event in which General Petraeus, the top military officer of the coalition forces, did the swearing-in duties for a large number of US personnel who were renewing their commitments to the Armed Forces. Some members of the band were providing music, others were re-enlisting. I was not involved in the ceremony, so I was with a small group of people who were helping to set up equipment on the Boardwalk for the afternoon festivities. I also took some time to try fixing my tenor trombone--the "spit valve" had come off the slide and I needed to make repairs before the show, since the trombone is unplayable without a functional valve. (I should like to know that this was a brand new trombone that had only been in use for a few weeks, and this was the second time the valve was causing trouble. Not to insinuate that all Bach 42T trombones have quality control problems, but...really.)
With the band split into separate groups, our transportation was stretched a bit thin, so we ended up hauling the sound gear and several instruments in a pickup truck and a minivan. Fortunately, we managed to get just about all of it in two trips. After taking shifts for lunch/equipment guard, we waited for the rest of the band to arrive at the Boardwalk for the sound check. While most of the performances that I do depend on the natural acoustic power of the instruments, that wouldn't be sufficient for this one. So all the instruments in the band had individual microphones clipped on, which meant that every single instrument had to have its volume individually adjusted. It required some patience, but we managed to finish the sound check with time to spare. I was able to join another member of the band to walk around the various games and activities that were set up in the center of the Boardwalk. (I managed to win a set of Skipbo cards, as a matter of fact.) Then it was time for the show to start.
Task Force Dixie, a Dixieland jazz group, opened the show. Since I'm not in that group, I was able to sit in the shade and listen. The next group was our W00T! Brass Band, which played a mix of funk and soul music. (pictured above) Following that, the 10th Mountain rock band Avalanche did a set of mostly classic rock tunes. By this time, it was starting to get dark and we Linkwere ready for the big finish, sans fireworks of course. The horns from W00T! joined Avalanche to play some patriotic numbers--"Warrior Ethos" (a song based on the Army's "Soldier's Creed"), Toby Keith's "American Soldier," and Phil Driscoll's arrangement of "America the Beautiful," with SSG Jason Bemis doing a pretty good reproduction of Driscoll's chop-busting trumpet solos.
Afterward, we had to pack up. This time we had the band's large tactical truck to haul gear, so the real trick was getting it backed up close to the Boardwalk so we could load equipment into it. By the time we were finished putting all the instruments and equipment back into our tent, it was after 2100 (9 pm) and the heat and activity had completely drained everyone. We were surprised to be given a complete day off on Tuesday to rest and recover, and I think everyone took advantage of the opportunity to sleep in.
It was not a spectacular day, but it was busy and full of music, and I think we helped remind a lot of the Soldiers over here what they're fighting to protect. Not a bad day's work!

Friday, July 8, 2011

End of an Era

In my next post, I'll write about the 4th of July festivities that we had on Kandahar Air Field. Today, though, I'll write about something I watched on television. Just minutes before I wrote this, the Space Shuttle Atlantis launched into orbit, beginning the final flight of NASA's Shuttle program. I have written in previous blogs about my attempts to watch a launch in person, which finally happened on April 5, 2010 as chronicled in my "Liftoff!" entry. As I have mentioned, I've been a fan of the space program all my life and especially fascinated with the Shuttle since April 12, 1981 when Columbia made its first flight. I still remember being in kindergarten and my dad waking me up early before school to watch the launch on television. Ever since then, I've watched launches whenever I could.
Though I often dreamed of being an astronaut, my interests were too mercurial and my dislike of advanced math and physics ensured that if I ever do go into space, it will have to be as a civilian in some sort of commercial capacity. (My naturally poor distance vision also convinced me early on that I would not be a pilot.) But every time I watched one of those Shuttles take off, I felt like my fantasies of spaceflight were somehow being fulfilled.
So this evening, just before 8 pm Afghan time, I sat in a dining facility with an unobstructed view of the television showing the British Sky News channel, waiting for them to switch coverage from the newspaper hacking scandal to the Shuttle. Sure enough, they switched over just before the countdown resumed from its T-9:00 minute hold. I watched as they defied the reports of bad weather, waited as they held the countdown at T-31 seconds, unable to hear what the problem was over the noise of the chow hall, and then did a double-take when I saw the clock had started again. And then, the familiar shots of the noise suppression system shooting into action under the main engines, the main engines coming alive in a bright orange burst, and the rocket boosters shooting Atlantis into the (unusually cloudy) sky.
As I walked away from dinner, I thought about how for the final time, somewhere in the sky above KAF, a US Space Shuttle orbiter was flying. While it was inevitable that the flights would end sometime, a combination of slow development, cost overruns, and bad planning has left the US without a manned launch vehicle and nothing past the drawing board stage. Our astronauts now have to travel to Kazakhstan to fly on Russian Soyuz rockets. While we will eventually develop some new method of space travel, the scuttling of NASA's planned Orion program and the lack of progress from private developers leaves us empty-handed, and that's a shame for the only nation to put humans on the Moon and build a reusable spacecraft. The people who built such a legacy for our space program, and the future generations they will inspire, deserve better.
So Godspeed Atlantis, and many thanks to the astronauts and ground crews of Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, and Endeavour. You have carried my dreams, and the dreams of the world.
Photo courtesy NASA: Atlantis STS-27 liftoff.

Friday, July 1, 2011


It's been over a month since my last post, but I have a good excuse this time--vacation! Policy dictates that those of us who are deployed in an overseas combat zone be given fifteen days, plus travel time, to get out of the theater and enjoy some rest and recuperation. While a few people take the opportunity for international travel--our tuba player went to Ireland with his wife--I decided to go home.
The 10th Mountain Division Band is broken into smaller groups, and the different groups each took R&R together, meaning that no performing ensemble was incomplete for the better part of a month and the remaining groups could cover any missions that came up. The Brass Quintet was the last group to go on R&R, and while waiting so long was difficult it does mean that we had far less than half the deployment remaining upon our return. I can't reveal much about the process of traveling back to the US for security reasons, but I did get to spend an entire day in a place I'll refer to as "Sandblastistan." I thought that the triple digit temperatures at KAF were bad, but Sandblastistan was even hotter. Imagine walking around on a hot day with a hair dryer blowing at full power three inches from the surface of your skin--that's what it felt like. I was glad to be away from there. The flight over was not comfortable for me because I was sitting in the middle of the plane--I'm about 6'2", and having such limited arm and leg room while flying halfway around the world did not make for a pleasant experience.
But it was worth it to arrive in Atlanta and be met by Julia, a lovely girl who I met through some mutual friends a while back. We made sure to stop at Chick-Fil-A for lunch and thought about attending the evening's Atlanta Braves game, but I decided I needed to stay in and rest up from the trip. We drove up to my hometown of Nashville the following day to stay with my family. That night we attended the Nashville Symphony's performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection." It was astounding--the orchestra has never sounded better, the Chorus was magnificent, and hearing it the exceptional acoustics of Schermerhorn Symphony Center made it easy to understand why many think that "Resurrection" is the best of Mahler's symphonies.
We spent the next day at my sister's house, where I got to spend plenty of time with my niece, who is about 18 months old, and we ended the day with a delicious family meal at Steak'N'Shake. The following day after I took my parents to the airport (they had made plans to vacation in Hawaii several months before my R&R schedule was finalized) Julia and I had breakfast with my sister's family at the Pfunky Griddle, a pancake restaurant that lets you make your own pancakes on a griddle in the center of the table--fun and tasty! After that, the two of us headed to McMinnville and Cumberland Caverns to enjoy Bluegrass Underground, a monthly event in which a bluegrass concert is held inside a large chamber in the cavern system. The opening act was a modern bluegrass group called Newfound Road, and the headline group was Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, a more traditional group that highlighted Cleveland's dazzling virtuosity on the fiddle. It was a fun performance, full of typical bluegrass subjects like trains, heartache, and murder, though after a while the constant 56-degree F temperature did begin to feel a bit chilly.
The next day, we headed back to Atlanta so Julia could squeeze in some time at work and I could visit some of my many friends from when I lived there. One of the hobbies I developed during my time in Atlanta was ballroom dancing, and so I made sure to get some lesson time with my teacher Natalie. We also joined a couple of Julia's friends for Mellow Mushroom trivia, where we placed a very close second. (Oddly enough, I'd gotten a photograph of these particular friends of hers--dressed as Indiana Jones and "the Bride" from Kill Bill--at DragonCon the previous September, completely unaware that they knew each other!) We met other friends at places as diverse as California Pizza Kitchen and Cafe Intermezzo--good food and good company.
The last few days were spent back in Nashville when my parents returned from the islands. Some quality family time was mixed in with a trip to Cheekwood to see the gardens and model trains, Ruby Falls (an underground waterfall located inside Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga), seeing old friends from college and high school, swimming at the neighborhood pool, catching up on the Harry Potter movies, visiting the famous Jack Daniel Distillery, and finding out that my Connect Four skills need some polishing. Then it was back to Atlanta, where I spent some of my last evening in the US enjoying the delectable tiramisu at Capozzi's in Decatur and enjoying the view from the Sundial revolving restaurant in the Westin Tower with my friend Jeff, an old Army buddy from my days at Ft. Benning and Ft. McPherson.
It was not easy going back to the airport to fly back to Afghanistan, but knowing that we're very close to being done with this deployment did help. I had a great time, made some great memories, and there's a lot of people I didn't get to see that I hope to meet up with next time. Meanwhile, there's more work to be done at Kandahar Air Field, so stay tuned!