by Frank Pauc
“The land here is strong
Strong beneath my feet
It feeds on the blood
It feeds on the heat” –The Rhythm of the Heat by Peter Gabriel
We drove down to Texas a week ago. Yeah, I know that making a road trip from Wisconsin to Texas in the middle of July is utter madness, but circumstances dictated that we go now or not go at all. We wanted to visit our oldest son, Hans, and his family. Karin and I had not been this way for almost two years, and it was high time to see the two grandchildren that we hardly knew. We took along our 18-month-old grandson, Asher, who has turned out to be a bold and intrepid traveler.
Basically, the entire United States south of Chicago is a sauna. Texas takes the heat one step further. We are staying in Bryan, which lies in the Brazos Valley in central Texas. It is not only hot here, but also exceedingly dry. The whole region is in the midst of a severe drought. The grass, where it is not watered, is golden brown, and it crackles like kindling under our feet. The trees are still green (mostly), but they are obviously stressed. Their leaves are dull and dusty. The natural world is in pain.
People here keep indoors if they can. The outdoor temperature regularly tops 100 degrees. Asher and his cousins went into the wading pool a couple of days ago. They didn’t stay there long. Asher became flushed in his face after only a few minutes. Hans and Gabby’s kids started to overheat soon after that. They retreated back into the air-conditioned comfort of the apartment.
Hans works in the heat every day. He pumps concrete for a living, and he is outside most of the time. Hans can deal with the heat better than he can handle the cold. He does not find the temperatures in Texas to be too extreme, but that is because he was deployed with the Army to Iraq back in 2011. Hans knows what real heat is.
He came home from work yesterday afternoon looking rough and ragged. I asked him, “How are you?”
“How much did you pump today?”
“How did that go?”
“The ground was bad.”
“Yeah, it was all sand. You know, it was like that real fine Kuwaiti kind of sand where if you break through the crust with your vehicle, you’re done.”
“We only had one mixer get stuck. He didn’t dig into the sand. He just tried to crank the wheels too tight. You have to make slow, gentle turns.”
He gave me a little smile like he was remembering something else, something from long ago.
Hans’ time in Iraq was hot and dry, and violent. His experiences there have made him impatient with folks who complain about small things. He told me, “I got no time for people who cry that they can’t find toilet paper in the store, or who whine about not having air conditioning for a day. I was in Third World countries where people didn’t have air conditioning, or electricity…or water.”
Hans’ wife says that his time in Iraq changed him in a fundamental way. She thinks that there are actually two separate men: the Hans before Iraq and the Hans after Iraq. I think she is right. Hans was different when he came back from the war. He wasn’t the same man. Whatever innocence he had before he deployed to the Middle East was burned away by the sun, and by the suffering he saw.
Hans remembers. He remembers the blood and the heat.