This took place in 2000, the last year of the twentieth century; the last year of our child-like naïveté - the year before the buildings came down. A tasking came down and somebody up at battalion said "Linnane is the guy for this!" and that's how I ended up doing the better part of a year living large and in charge out in the Middle of Nowhere:
" . . . . I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I'd never want another . . ."
My mission statement said something about patrols, so I took it to heart and I started going deep into the interior for a week at a time. I kept a patrol log, sent in coordinates of features not on the map; wells, oasis, cleared areas suitable to land fixed-wing aircraft. I always took a local with me - this turned out to be good planning on more than one occasion.
On this particular occasion I was in Choum, headed north to F'derik. We waited in Choum during the hottest time of the day. There was a whitewashed mud hut - it was a sort of caravanserai; the only furniture was Moroccan carpets. Everybody lounged around, sat with their backs up against the wall, and passed around this wooden bowl full of camel milk yoghurt, which isn't bad; it's the thick black line of flies all along the rim that are the bad part.
When it cooled off to a bearable 95°F everybody went outside to the trucks - a caravan had assembled - and made ready to make movement. You travel at night in the desert, part of the reason is it gets so hot in the middle of the day, the tires pop. One day I had to fix five flats - and that included breaking the tire off the rim, pulling the tube out and patching it, then putting the tire back on the rim and pumping it up - by hand - popping the bead and all - in the middle of the Sahara Desert in the middle of the day.
Anyway we were rolling across the desert track - there aren't any roads out there; it's all track - all these trucks full of Moors all over the place, it looked like a North African re-make of The Road Warrior.
The trick is to stay on track. The other trick is to constantly be checking your navigation. I was doing the dead reckoning thing and keeping an eye on the stars just to be sure we were heading in the right direction, but I wasn't too worried about it because everybody knows the Arabs have this uncanny sense of direction, right? It's like they always know where Mecca is, right?
WRONG. Turns out I was the only one doing any kind of nav checks out there. Around about the time I noticed we'd made a big circle about twice I called a halt to the Great Migration. Everybody dismounted and that was a LOT of everybody - there were at least twenty trucks in our convoy and each truck held between ten to thirty Moors. The leaders all assembled and I said in a mixture of French and bad Arabic, "Look, we've lost the track and we're going in circles."
What I picked up from them as they mumbled amongst themselves was, "This guy is the weirdest Frenchman ever been around these parts," and "He isn't French, can't you tell he's Egyptian?" That's the kind of Arabic they teach at Fort Bragg.
I said, "This is my good idea - let's just stop here and rest for a couple hours." It was already 0230. "Then when the wolf's tail comes" - the early, early morning pre-light just before dawn - "then we'll go on the track again, and this time we'll be able to see it, and we'll be in F'derik before it gets hot."
Everybody agreed to this, then split up to report back to their individual crowds. I pulled out my trusty poncho liner and threw my bag up against the tire of my truck and leaned against it, pulled the poncho around me to help beat the wind and try to get some shuteye. All around me there were clusters of people, making tea, having conversations, a group of them would get together and do a sort of line dance where they were all doing their prayers - "Allah-wuh-Allah-wuh-ak-b-a-a-a-r . . ."
It was like the Tribes of Israel in the Wilderness; there were hundreds of people all around me, huddled in little clusters all about me in the darkness, and it was dark as Sin. Suddenly it occurred to me that NOBODY KNEW WHERE I WAS; not the embassy, not the guys up at SOCEUR in Stuttgart or back at Bragg, none of my friends, my family . . .
. . . NOBODY . . .
I was out there - WAY out there - my life was in the hands of these strangers who were all around me . . . and not a SOUL I knew had any idea where on Earth was Sean Linnane.
If a snake had bitten me, I'd have been done.
I looked up at those stars - in the desert night the stars look like diamonds on black velvet - then the vast solitude of it all, and the reality of my situation - it all hit me all at once: my home & my people might as well be way out there beyond those stars, and I started feeling . . . SO . . . . . . ALONE . . .
The sensation of being out there - all by myself - surrounded by strange strangers . . . Stranger in a Strange Land . . . I felt SO . . . ALONE . . .
. . . I never felt . . . SO . . . LONELY . . . IN . . . ALL . . . MY . . . LIFE . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . SEAN LINNANE SENDS
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