Today I’m being interviewed by KION 6 news for the 10 year anniversary of the Oregon National Guard deploying to Hurricane Katrina clean up in New Orleans. 10 years ago I was an acting platoon leader doing what we could in yet another messed up situation. It was my first deployment after healing up from the injuries I sustained in Iraq. So I thought I’d post what I wrote about it. Here is the second to last chapter in The Wax Bullet War: Flying Sharks and Zombie Squirrels.
Flying Sharks and Zombie Squirrels
It was close to one hundred degrees and about two in the afternoon. My squad and I stood on an overpass above Highway 10, surrounding a five-foot-long shark carcass. The humidity kept me in a continual coat of sweat. The only relief was the occasional light breeze, but even that always brought the smell of decaying animals. I breathed shallowly through my mouth; a person wasn’t meant to get used to those types of smells. Angry flies scattered from the shark’s eyes whenever any of us moved. It must have been a thing of beauty, moving through the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, nature’s killing machine, but at my feet it was just a giant decomposing carcass.
“Holy shit. This thing probably flew twenty miles in the hurricane,” Walken said.
“This is a fucking tiger shark,” Schaeffer said.
The skin was dry and wrinkled, and the mouth hung to the side, showing teeth black at the base and white at the tips.
“It’s a bull shark, there’s no doubt about it,” Walken said.
“No way, Corporal. Look at the fucking stripes.” Schaeffer said, pointing at what he believed to be stripes across its back.
“Bulldog 6, this is Ghost 6. What is your status?” the battalion RTO called over the radio. I had called in a body when we saw the thing from a distance and they wanted an update on the situation.
“Those are scratches,” Walken said. “It flew inside the hurricane and all types of shit ran into it.”
I squinted to see if they were scratches or stripes, without caring one way or the other. The radio called again, “Bulldog 6, this is Ghost 6, do you have a Delta Bravo, over?” A Delta Bravo was the army’s phonetic alphabet for DB, which stood for dead body. I decided they were scratches and wondered why they didn’t just say dead body. The city was full of them. It wasn’t a secret.
“Sarge, what do you think?” Walken asked me.
I took off my helmet and ran my hand through my soaked hair.
“I don’t give a shit what kind of shark it is, let’s see what’s inside,” Dirty Burt said as he pulled out a knife and knelt down next to it. He stabbed it under the mouth and cut it right down to its asshole. Water and stomach contents spilled out like someone had popped a waterbed mattress. We all jumped back several feet so all the shit wouldn’t get on our boots.
The stomach contents were mostly fish, but something else popped out, too. At first I thought it was coral, but after I kicked it a bit I realized it was a deer antler.
“Bulldog 6, this is Ghost 6, we need a sitrep, over,” the radio called again. Sitrep was short for situation report.
“Sergeant, are you going to answer them?” Walken asked me.
I heard him but kept staring at the shark, thinking, Everything moves toward its end.
“I wonder where the other antler is,” Dirty Burt laughed.
“Sergeant, Battalion really wants to get ahold of us,” Walken repeated.
I unclipped the hand-mic from my webgear and answered, “Roger, Ghost 6, we have a single Delta Bravo.” I gave them the eight-digit grid coordinate.
“Bulldog 6, we need a description of the body, over.”
“Sure, it is approximately five foot three, one hundred and twenty pounds, blue in color with what appear to be scratches on its back,” I said.
“I told you. This is a fucking bull shark,” Walken said.
“Roger, Bull Dog 6, Charlie Mike, out.”
The next morning we were ahead of schedule, so we pulled an extra mission. The captain needed us to clear the projects. Because the waters had recently receded enough to get to them, the escaped prisoners might be hiding there. I took my half of the platoon and headed out.
When we arrived, it was obvious that the flood had only given one of the five buildings back; the other four were still covered up to the first-floor windows. There was no way we would step foot in those fetid waters. The other rescue workers had told us stories of seeing animals drinking it in the morning and dying the same night. So wading shoulder-deep in the shit to clear out government housing for the poorest of the poverty-stricken wasn’t an option.
One of the young privates from my platoon threw a rock into the middle of an oil rainbow floating about fifty feet in. The splash invited more rocks, and in a few minutes a half-dozen of the soldiers were trying to hit the circle-blotch of colors. The sound startled a few dogs and got them barking. I looked down the street on both sides of us, but didn’t see where the hell they were until one of my squad leaders pointed up at the project balconies. There they were: American bulldogs, rottweilers, and Doberman pinschers of all sizes paced back and forth on the balconies, starving and dying of thirst. I stared up at what had to be a hundred dying dogs while their yelps, whines, and cries filled the streets and bounced off every wall.
“Christ, we better call this in.” I fumbled for the radio.
The dogs had been left in the apartments by their masters. They must have been starving. My platoon sliced into the plastic pouches of all the MREs we carried, and we did our best to toss them to the animals we could reach. The cries wouldn’t stop. I had to walk away for a while, find a place to sit in the shade, and try as hard as I could not to think of the men with their guts blown out at North Gate.
Two hours later, I stood in the sun on what would have been a very unremarkable street corner while the rest of the squad took a break in the shade of a house on the other side. I stared at a black man in his fifties hanging upside down from a telephone pole. He was the first person we’d found this way, but it wasn’t an uncommon sight throughout the city. In one of the briefings, the captain had told us about the upside-down dead people. The initial responders buzzed around on their motorboats trying to find the live people. At first, whenever they found a dead one, they recovered the body, but soon there were too many to recover so they tied the people to telephone poles, sometimes with the corpse’s belt or shoestrings, and called in their grid coordinates for the body retrieval team. The body retrieval team was overworked and couldn’t get to all of the grid coordinates before the water went down. The scene didn’t seem to affect the boys at all, but I stared at this man. Before I was blown up I probably wouldn’t have cared either, but now I did. No one could ever guess they would end up in that way. Was that it? I don’t know.
Behind me the boys argued. Corporal Craig Walken yelled at one of the men in his team. “There’s no such thing as zombie squirrels!”
I walked over to the shade and pulled out a cigarette.
“Look, right there, that fucking squirrel chewed through his own fucking cheek.” Private Schaeffer pointed.
Sure enough, there was a squirrel with a big hole in his right cheek, standing on his hind legs, staring at us without fear.
“You don’t know what’s in this fucking water,” Private Schaeffer said.
A lot of dead shit was in the water. I looked back at the man hanging from the telephone pole. His skin wasn’t black or brown anymore; it had turned the color of ash and it didn’t reflect the sun. The bloat stretched his clothes, and all his weight rested on the side of his head, his spine shaped like a C.
“You watch too much television. They’ve been in the trees this whole time. They’re not undead; they’re fucking starving. Watch.” Walken pulled a PowerBar from his right cargo pocket, peeled it open, and threw some to the squirrel. The squirrel jumped to catch it in the air. It bounced off and rolled a ways down the street. Another squirrel pounced on it. The two squirrels fought.
“See, see! I never saw two squirrels fight like that—they’re fucking zombies,” Schaeffer said.
I took off my helmet, ran my hand through my sweat-drenched hair, and arched my back. My equipment felt twice as heavy as it had the day before. I called Battalion Command over the radio and told them about the body. There was two minutes of radio silence and then they told me to Charlie Mike.
A week later, Battalion sent us to search an extremely poor section of Orleans Parish called Indian Village. Every street was named after a Native American tribe that had lived in the area before we pushed them west. Naming a ghetto after them must have seemed like some sort of tribute at one time. Those houses had such thin walls I doubted they had any insulation. Most of them were old shotgun houses no wider than two front doors side by side; others weren’t anything more than built-up shacks. All of them had been half filled with floodwaters.
We kicked the doors in. Around noon we found a wild-eyed woman wearing a dingy floral-patterned housedress three sizes too big hiding in her bathtub behind the shower curtain. She scared the shit out of Walken. He almost shot her, but instead brought her out to the front to talk to me. She loudly informed me that her name was Mimi. She said, “I was conceived in this house, I was born in this house, I lived in this house my whole life, and I will die in this house.”
I asked her why she had hid from us.
“Look at you. If you were me, you’d hide too.”
I looked at the squad, standing with the same combat load we carried in Iraq, listening to her.
“You think you boys would be carrying guns if Beverly Hills flooded?”
I asked her what she’d been living on and if she needed anything. She told me that every day, in the afternoon, she would go about and find the things she needed, so she was fine, except she may need more insulin in a week or so. She’d had type I diabetes since her teens.
“Mimi, insulin needs to be refrigerated or it won’t work,” I told her.
This started her on a rant about how much weight she’d lost since the flood, and how sometimes she would just pass out and sleep for hours. I knew this meant her body was breaking down from the lack of insulin. She was lucky she hadn’t fallen into a coma.
“I’m sorry, Mimi, but you’re going to have to come with us.” Immediately, I knew those were the wrong words. I should have explained that I only wanted her to be looked over by a doctor and taken care of. I should have said she’d be dead in a couple days if she didn’t come with us.
Her frightened eyes looked from one soldier to the next like a cornered animal, and she started screaming for us to leave. I called in the situation on the battalion net, and Captain Charbonneau was on the other end. Within fifteen minutes he arrived with some of the headquarters platoon, an ambulance, and a news crew. I introduced them to Mimi. The medical personnel worked on her while the captain gave an exclusive interview about how his company had saved another life. Officers were still the same, no matter the deployment. I told my squad to load up, and we slipped off to the next sector.
Private Schaeffer drove our dented and dinged bus through the abandoned cars and fallen trees to the neighborhood around Pontchartrain Park. The guys in back joked about Mimi, imitating her voice: “I was conceived in this house, I was born in this house … ” The vibration of my cell phone surprised me. It wasn’t something that happened a lot while on patrol. I flipped it open to see a text from Jaime.
The Best Thing Happened, I am now engaged to be Mrs. Andy Hoffman.
I had no idea why she would send this to me, but then I saw it was a mass text, probably to everyone in her phone. I knew they were getting along, and Andy was a nice enough guy, but marriage? The news didn’t piss me off, but I couldn’t help but remember some moments. She was my first beautiful thing. But there would be others. I stared out the window. The setting sun reflected off the oils in the water, coloring the sides of the houses with blues, yellows, and greens.
Franklin Avenue was our western limit, and we cleared all the houses on the way to Peoples Avenue, our eastern limit. In this way we zigzagged south through the middle-class neighborhoods. These houses were nicer than the others. They had yards, extra rooms, handsome siding, and thick doors, and many of the windows had been boarded up by the owners before the evacuation.
Twilight came, and I decided we would clear one more street before heading back to the seminary. My turn to knock came up, and it took three good kicks to break the deadbolt. The smell of death hit me hard before the door had swung all the way open. I clicked on the flashlight mounted to the barrel of my rifle. The narrow beam cut through the dark into the living room, and I saw a body, naked except for boxer shorts, on the mattress of a pullout couch.
“We got someone,” I said.
I covered my nose with my left sleeve and stepped into the room. The squad flowed in behind me. The beams of our four flashlights moved over the scene. A man lay on a bare, striped mattress, a revolver in his right hand, resting on a blood-crusted pillow with the left half of his head missing. On his right thigh was a single piece of lined notebook paper. I stepped a few feet closer to inspect the paper. It had his name, Social Security number, and birthday written in a shaky hand, and it had been plastic-wrapped around his leg to waterproof it and fix it there.
One of the privates cussed, ran outside, and emptied his guts off the porch. A couple more of the men did the same. I didn’t move, only breathed shallowly through my mouth to avoid the smell, but I could still taste it in my lungs. My hands started tingling like they were asleep, then my feet. Little sparks flew around at the edge of my vision. I turned around and told everyone to clear out.
When I called it in, the battle captain told me that since this man didn’t die from the flood it was a big deal. He instructed us to stay until the police came. Someone pulled out a deck of cards and the guys played a game, smoked cigarettes, and bullshitted. I walked to the street and called Jaime, let it ring once, and then hung up and called Andy instead. I congratulated him and told him I’d help throw his bachelor party.
We didn’t get back until after eleven at night. I was drained, mentally and physically. We all filed by a box of MREs and picked one up. While we sat on our cots digging the plastic spoons into the main meal pouches, I glanced from man to man trying to see if this shit affected them as much as it affected me, but they laughed and joked. The men who didn’t puke at the suicide’s house made fun of the men who did. An hour later most everyone was asleep, and half were snoring.
I couldn’t sleep, but I wasn’t awake. I was somewhere in between, dreaming up memories of all the dead people I’d seen: the couple burnt alive in the white car at North Gate; a chest blown out across loose sand; bodies in Haiti dumped into the bay at Port au Prince; the broken man dying at my feet in his own shit and blood; and Simon, hunched over in the truck, fully engulfed in flames. The last memory woke me up suddenly, and I didn’t want to close my eyes again, afraid the images would be trapped in my head if I did. At times I was afraid to even blink. I don’t know how long I stared at the ceiling, listening to the buzz of crickets, before finally going to sleep.
I drifted into another dream, where I saw myself sitting with the suicide man at his kitchen table. The deafening sounds of the hurricane pounded at the walls of his house and I felt the absolute terror I imagined he felt. The wind screamed like a jet engine and pulled at the corners of the plywood nailed over the windows. The candles had all blown out and refused to be lit again. We sat paralyzed by fear in the dark except when the lightning flashed, making our faces deathly white and reflecting off the black floodwaters pouring in and swirling around our feet. His revolver lay on the table between us. The dream ended when I reached for it.
I didn’t shave or change clothes the next morning before heading to the daily briefing. The captain gave me a sector to clear and told us about the other rescue teams in the area. We were the only ones still looking for dead bodies, but there were at least a dozen civilian teams to help the animals. They had collected most of the dogs from the projects, had even found a couple rabbits and a Komodo dragon. On my way back to my platoon, the command sergeant major called me over. He was a broad-chested career man with a ranger tab and the professional leadership style to make everyone want to do their best.
“Sergeant Davis.” I felt him inspecting every whisker on my chin. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Yes, Sergeant Major.” I stood at parade rest.
“Good. I wanted to tell you you’re doing a hell of a job,” he said. “I read the report about the insulin-dependent diabetic. That’s what we’re here for, to save lives.”
I thanked him.
He straightened his patrol cap and said, “As you may have heard, my oldest boy got his commission and, well, you know these young lieutenants. They have big ideas, and without a good platoon sergeant to show them the ropes, well, they can make mistakes.”
“Yes, Sergeant Major.”
“I want you to be his platoon sergeant, you know, to train him up. Don’t take any shit from him,” he said with a smile.
I tried hard not to show my surprise. Again, I thought I was fucking up and about ready to get thrown out. “Thank you, Sergeant Major. I would be honored.”
We stood looking at each other for a couple seconds. “Well, that’s it. I know he’ll be in good hands.” I knew he wanted me to say something, but I couldn’t thank him. I didn’t want to lie to him. There was no way I was going to return to the old unit and be a platoon sergeant. I was done. Maybe I didn’t know it until right then, but the infantryman inside me was gone.
I turned to return to my platoon, but he stopped me. “Sergeant Davis.”
“Make sure you drag a razor across that face before you head out today.”
“Yes, Sergeant Major.”