THE DAY I STOPPED TORTURING
My X-Terra is idling outside of New Seasons Market in Southeast Portland, and I turn around in the driver’s seat to look at Rick. Rick’s a chubby, middle-aged man wearing a stained wife beater. He’s handcuffed, with a 600-thread count pillowcase on his head. Rick’s a firefighter from Chicago. Sitting next to Rick is a retired Special Forces operator named Wade. Wade is drunk from sipping his flask all morning. What he’s not sipping from is a bottle of Fiji Natural Artesian Water in his left hand. He’s saving that to waterboard Rick.
I know the pillowcase is 600-thread count because I bought it for my wife on Mother’s Day a few months ago. It’s one of her favorites.
I have a friend named Kris. We were in the same platoon in Iraq years back. Last week Kris called me up to see if I wanted to help a private military company and security consulting firm called Blackwater. You might have heard of them. Kris said they were holding a weekend class full of rich people who traveled to and through countries in states of unrest. The class was about teaching these civilians how to pick handcuffs and what to expect while being waterboarded in case they were ever kidnapped by terrorists. Each student paid around 750 bucks to attend.
Kris didn’t ask me to bring this pillowcase specifically, but he did say that a good one, a high-quality one, with a nice, high thread count, is the best kind of pillowcase for waterboarding.
So the thing I’ve noticed with PTSD is that I get depressed for really no good reason every couple of months. The first year or two back was the worst, but I survived those days where I used alcohol to self medicate. I remember one New Year’s Eve where my resolution was to stay drunk all year. No one keeps their resolutions, but I did make it to Easter. I got through it. Now, I’m a college grad, I’m married, and I’m raising my amazing daughters. There’s no reason to be depressed, but it still happens.
Rick reaches up with his handcuffed hands and scratches his nose through the pillowcase. His head turns to the left and then to the right and he says, “Are we starting now?”
Rick is about to be tortured for fake information in the hipster capital of the world and somehow this helps me with my life.
Wade screams at Rick, “Where’s your hide? What’s your partner’s name?” He takes a pull out of his flask and winks at me.
What no one tells you about combat is that most of the time it’s fun as hell. I know, it’s not a popular stance, but having the power of life and death in your hand is fucking awesome. The big fear is on the other side of every second and the raw part of your brain is driving. You’re not a man; you’re a superman. You’re bullet train. You’re a space shuttle. Adrenaline is the perfect drug. You can see farther, hear better, carry more weight, run faster, jump higher. You’re a demigod, a deity.
I lived as an immortal for a brief time and the power was so staggering I will always hear the echo inside of me.
I shoot a glance at the rearview mirror to see Wade taking another sip of his flask. He’s about thirty pounds heavier than his picture on the security contractor website and he needs a shave. He pretty much looks like all of us once we stop jobbing.
Wade screams again, “Where’s your hide, American? You are going to tell me who your partner is.”
Rick is visibly agitated. Wade shows his teeth like a wild dog and yells some more. We’re so close to that incredible moment where we all forget this is just a game. And here it comes, that warm beautiful drug flowing through my veins, that power.
Each of the students were given a partner, a bag of extra clothes, and fake money to “hide” somewhere in the city. That way they had some information to give up during their waterboarding session. Senseless torture has little training value.
Suddenly Wade straddles Rick right there in my backseat. Wade forces Rick’s head back with his right hand and pours the water on the pillowcase. It darkens and saturates and clings to the face so I can see his lips part and suck, then suck harder. Wade’s own mouth is only inches from Rick’s face and he’s screaming. Rick sputters, coughs violently and says over and over, “Oh god. Oh my god.”
This is as intimate and violent as a sex crime. I’m the voyeur with a lightning storm in my nervous system. I’m alive more than I have been in too long. Oh, these tiny god-sized moments.
In front of us, a tandem bicycle slowly pedals into a crosswalk, and I hit the brakes. A skinny, bearded man who could have been right out of an LL Bean catalogue must have been taking his eight-year-old on a peaceful Sunday ride around the neighborhood. Wade screams at Rick and Rick gags and gurgles desperately. Both the bearded guy and his kid stare.
I smile and nod hoping they ignore what they can’t understand. Their reaction grounds me. This isn’t normal. The next time I look in the rearview I have a different perspective. “Jesus,” I say to Wade with a big fake smile still on my face, “maybe lighten up a bit.”
“You hear that, American? My partner knows I lose control sometimes. What do you think? Should I lighten up?”
The father and son hear this as well and the father starts peddling faster than the son can keep up with until they’re around a corner, out of sight.
The wet cloth clings to Rick’s face making him look like a sock puppet the way his mouth opens and closes while trying to breathe. He says, “Oh God, holy shit.”
Wade changes to a quieter, more controlled voice, “Remember to pick the handcuffs.” Then the instructor voice goes away and the terrorist voice yells, “I already caught your partner earlier, American. He gave you up. I’m just having fun now, but you can make it stop if you tell me where your hide is.”
Wade forces Rick’s head back again. This time Rick tries to fight it, but there’s nothing he can do. The water pours over my wife’s pillow case. Rick chokes. Rick sputters. Then he whimpers.
All the students must, at one point in the day, go to a fence at Hosford Elementary School and pick one of the locks Wade put on a chain-link fence. So whenever we lose the scent we head back to watch the locks. There are only five left, but as soon as I park, someone stops in front of the fence, leans up against a tree, and smokes a cigarette. And just like the rest, he’s wearing a black ball cap and dark sunglasses.
“That’s Auden. He’s the youngest student. His father is an executive for DaimlerChrysler and travels to Eastern Europe several times a year. That was the angle Auden used to have him pay for the class,” Wade says.
Auden squats down and feigns to tie his shoe while scanning the neighborhood. I can tell he doesn’t normally smoke by the way he handles the cigarette.
“Look at him,” Wade says, “All these goofballs get their tactical knowledge from watching the Bourne Identity. That little shit sees this whole class as some sort of X Game or, I don’t know, extreme tag.” He sips his flask.
I watch him, nod, and realize that I really want to catch Auden. I want to catch that cocky little shit and make him cough, sputter, and spit. I want to give him the big fear, knock him down a notch. Then I’m going to jump out of the car and punch the next guy I see right in his heart, crash my truck into a wall, then sprint up a mountain to piss a river.
Wade says, “I’ll jump out and around the north side of the school. Give me five minutes and then go at him this way. He’ll head right to me.”
I wait and watch Auden struggle with the lock. Beyond that lock on the other side of the chain-link fence spans a playground with a jungle gym, two swing sets, and a large grass field, empty today except a young family. A dad throws a blue ball. The yellow mutt takes off after it, a toddler in red scampers after the dog, and the mom laughs the whole time.
I know I have the worst type of violence in me, either created by all the dangerous missions I went on in the war, or maybe I went on all the dangerous missions because it was always there. My wife and daughter haven’t seen it, but I feel it behind thought and action.
Shit, I’m not going to lie; they have seen it, but only a very small part. Most the time I’m a very patient, big-hearted kind of guy. Since coming back from the war, sometimes the anger surfaces. I can’t even remember what triggered it last time, but I remember the frustration and sadness in my wife’s face sitting at our kitchen table. We both know whatever set me off wasn’t her fault but then it’s too late. I yelled about something. I screamed so loud that our baby daughter stopped crying then exploded into hysterics. I don’t know why. I don’t know why I’m mad, I don’t know who caused it, I don’t know I can’t control it sometimes.
I step out of the car and for the first time I notice how beautiful the morning really is. Leaf-filled branches from the tall trees arch over the narrow two-lane road of the residential neighborhood. Every time the light breeze kicks up, all of the small patches of sunlight on the ground shake.
When I get about fifteen feet away from Auden he stops fiddling with the lock, pulls his hat down, and slings his backpack. He walks away. I pick up the pace. I squash the cigarette he threw down. He turns his head to the side and I move to the edge of his peripheral. His hands are deep in his front pockets, his head down, and he’s speed walking at this point, right toward Wade.
So what no one says about PTSD is that it’s like having your emotions broken. Emotions should be the first thing we talk about with combat veterans, but they are the last, if mentioned at all. Just like a guy with a serious back injury has to learn to walk again, I had to learn how to use my emotions again, and for a long time it was like trying to balance a boulder on the end of a broom stick; any wrong move and it’d come crashing down.
The yellow mutt comes running my way on the other side of the fence. She’s chasing the blue ball and the toddler in red is chasing the dog. Now they are all laughing and laughing. The young mother runs up and scoops the child up from behind. They’re all snorts and giggles. I think about what my family is doing and then I think about the situation I’m in.
At the end of the block I see Wade move from behind a tree, but before he could tap Auden on the shoulder the young kid takes off like a rabbit chased by greyhounds. They sprint across the street. Instantly, I’m in the race too. The kid has some spring in him because it only takes him a couple seconds to be up and over some home’s backyard fence. I catch up and Wade and I can’t do anything but breathe hard in front of a cedar plank gate of a ranch-style home. Wade’s pissed, but not because Auden broke the rules. I can see it in his eyes; he’s pissed because the little rich kid outran him and being outrun killed his power-buzz.
“I told them to stop once we tap them on the shoulder. I didn’t think he would take off. Little shit caught me off guard.”
On our way back to the truck we see Rick meander up to the padlocks with his Bears hat on backwards, the same dark sunglasses, but he isn’t wearing a shirt. He doesn’t look around or anything. His whole focus is on the padlock.
What your probably know about bullies is that when frustrated they pick on someone weaker. It’s an Occam’s Razor type of thing. Even rage goes the path of least resistance.
Wade smiles and smacks me on the arm with the back of his hand.
Ten minutes later I turn back onto Division and see Auden walking into New Seasons Market.
“He circled back around,” I say.
Wade’s straddling Rick again. He stops. “Who?”
Wade slides off Rick’s lap and removes the pillowcase. “Great job. You didn’t give your hide up that time.”
Rick barely catches his breath. “I didn’t… I didn’t get the… cuffs…”
“Oh, you would have. I saw it. A few more seconds, but we have to get going.”
Wade pulls out the key and frees Rick. We speed away, drop Wade off on the west side of the street and drive to the east side to park. I get out and walk to where I saw the kid.
Auden recognizes me instantly outside of the store. He takes off sprinting and hits an end display. A pyramid of melons explodes and I pause for just a second thinking I should pick them up, but take off after him instead.
I’m really stretching it out and it feels good. I’m keeping up with this young kid, maybe gaining, but then Wade pops out from behind a hedge and clothe-lines Auden. I mean he takes him down hard with some spec-ops, hand-to-hand, cool-guy ninja shit.
In a few seconds Wade has Auden chicken-winged, face down in someone’s lawn. He lifts him off the ground. “Hurry and get the truck.”
Soon Auden’s cuffed and hooded and Wade’s sipping his flask next to him. I’m driving around in a residential area looking for an accessible spigot because we used the last of our water on Rick. It’s a Sunday morning in Southeast Portland; most people are working in the garden or walking their dog so going unnoticed isn’t really an option.
Auden hasn’t said a word since we captured him. I look at the pillowcase and wonder what he’s thinking under there. Wade has his arm around the kid’s shoulders as he scans the houses with a big smile on his face.
“There, there. Stop, stop.” I hit the brakes, Wade pops out, and leaves the door open. I look back and through the open door I see an elderly man pruning a rosebush in his front yard. Wade’s sudden movements caught his attention and now he arduously gets up from his knees and stares at me with suspicion and right when I try to give this old stranger a reassuring smile I hear the click of Auden’s handcuffs opening.
I dive back at Auden who is loose and fighting me to get out the door, to get free, to avoid being tortured. My hand finds his belt and I yard him back but now he’s got the pillowcase off and he’s swinging and kicking for his life. All that adrenaline makes him stronger than he is. My foot comes off the brake and since I never put the truck in park it starts to coast along at two or three miles an hour.
“Knock it off, asshole,” I yell.
“Fuck you. I’ll never tell you my hide,” Auden yells back.
“Stop before someone calls the police.”
The old man shrinks from his rosebush with a frightful look. Auden’s torso is out of the truck with his hands and arms outstretched; a set of handcuffs dangles from his right wrist. The front tire hits the curb and drives up on it sending the truck lurching back.
I really wrench the kid hard, like I lost my patience hard, and step on the brake. Auden hits his head on the side of the truck and the door slams shut. Wade comes strolling over with a smile on his face and a full bottle of water. He waves at the old man with a smile. “Training exercise.”
Auden’s sitting there stunned with his hand to his head probably trying to figure out the new parameters to the game. Wade fastens the cuffs again and when he lifts the pillowcase Auden jerks away and says his head really hurts. He says that he doesn’t think he should be waterboarded. He should have gotten away.
Wade says, “Do you think if you’re abducted overseas a bump on the head will stop the terrorists?”
“No, but… I don’t, listen I’m dizzy, and I just don’t want to do this.”
Wade slams my wife’s 600-thread count pillowcase down over his head and straddles him, forces his head back, and slowly pours the water over his face. Auden’s pleas cut in and out like a lost transmission between the sputtering and spitting. Wade looks at me. “Let’s get out of this neighborhood before that old guy calls someone.”
I’m driving and listening to the kid cry and scream for help. It’s obvious he can’t deal. He’s way past the moment where he forgot this is a game and we all missed it.
“Come on, man. He’s dizzy,” I say.
This time Wade doesn’t look at me. Instead he yells at Auden, “You thought it was so fucking funny to jump that fence, huh? To run away. Let me hear you laugh now, motherfucker.”
“Come on, Wade.”
“No, I’m serious; if he laughs right now I will let him go.”
“Laugh, you little shit. Laugh.”
Between the coughing and choking Auden is trying. He is trying his best to laugh, but it comes out a sporadic, beaten, pathetic whine. This isn’t a training exercise anymore, this isn’t game, a class, whatever. This is a sort of hell for all three of us.
“Stop, Wade. He’s done.”
Wade stops for a second. He laughs without looking back then says, “But I still have a half a bottle of water.”
“He’s done, man.”
The end of the bottle rocks forward just a little but stops before any more water comes out. It hesitates, but then Wade jumps off the kid. He sits there next to him, digs his flask out, and takes a sip. After he puts the flask away he pulls the pillowcase off Auden and says in his proud instructor’s voice, “Great job, Auden. I mean, that was awesome. You did great, better than the rest. You almost got away. Let me get those cuffs off.”
What they don’t tell you about war is that it’s fun as hell, right up until it’s the worst experience of your life. Sometimes you’re forced to rationalize how some of the best times in your life can be the worst times in your life. For people like Wade the adventure, adrenaline, and power are more important than dealing with the ugly parts so they keep going. They go on multiple deployments or get out of the military and join a defense contractor and this works for them. I found that didn’t work for me, and neither did torturing people in the back of my truck. I still miss the power, but now when I’m close to convincing myself the ugly things weren’t so ugly I hear Auden laughing.