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`Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home'

TILLIL AIRFIELD, Iraq—The morning began like so many others had since I started living among the Army's military police officers in February. I had been at rest in my sleeping bag since midnight, expecting to wake at 5 a.m. to move somewhere else. Then someone tugged my ankle at 4 a.m., barking that our departure had been moved up.

This is the real fog of war: roused from sleep and moving forward in hazy consciousness with uncertain plans and the expectation that something would go wrong.

Of course, the early departure was delayed. You rarely know why.

But I began this day with a spring in my step. After much anxiety, I had decided the night before that it was time to get home.

I hefted my gear aboard a bus with soldiers and four Iraqi civilians who were being released from a prisoner of war camp. We trailed a caravan of less fortunate locals hauled south to another set of razor-wire pens.

In a short time we were lost. No problem. Not once had I climbed in a vehicle for more than 20 minutes since hitching up with the Army without getting lost. It would work out. Less than an hour lost and we were on the right road again.

An old song took hold of my head.

"Give me a ticket for an aeroplane

"Ain't got time to take a fast train

"Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home

"My baby just wrote me a letter."

My fantasy, and I kept warning myself that it was only that, was to catch a C-130 emptied of cargo and running back to Kuwait. There I might shower, eat something that didn't count its shelf life in decades and arrange passage to Kansas City, Mo.

Six hours of bouncing over the remnants of Iraq's back roads and we pulled up to the camp at Tillil Airfield near Nasiriyah, where we would drop the POWs and I would beg for a seat with the Air Force. My mind wandered to thoughts of Coke poured over ice, of a bed, of sheets, of a month and a half of desert grime swirling down a bathroom drain.

Wait.

Turn the clock back 36 hours. When picking up three Iraqis on the roadside, a young soldier searched their belongings and came across a bag of black and white powder. Told it was sugar and tea, it was dismissed. Shortly afterward, the soldier's right eye swelled shut. A medic attributed it to a scratch from sand.

But on our arrival at Tillil, word reached us that the soldier, still back north, had two swollen eyes. The bag of powder was in a collection of prisoner's possessions that had been at my feet for the ride to Tillil.

Gas-masked soldiers were on the bus making a search. Quarantine. I wasn't worried about anthrax or smallpox; I'd had my shots and I doubted there was any real chance of nasty stuff on such forlorn-looking farmers. But for all I knew, there was just one flight out today. Maybe only one this week. Could a waiting list be filling up this moment?

An hour passed. Then two. Three, four, five, six. Now my mind ran through the alternatives, to unknown caravans crawling back to Kuwait. I envisioned flat tires and failing transmissions.

The inevitable all-clear came.

I was next to the runway. I saw a glorious C-130, fat and loud, with its belly empty and rotors churning. I knew they tried to unload them and send them on their way in seven minutes. It was OK. I could do another night in the desert. I could hack another dust storm standing on my head.

"I know I'm late for this plane, but is there anything going in the next day or so?" I asked an airman.

He said something into a radio and turned to me. I'd better hurry. I wanted to kiss him, but I ran. Some fabulously clean guys from the Georgia Air National Guard greeted me.

"Looks like you could use a shower," one said.

"Give me a ticket for an aeroplane. . . . "

———

(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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