Desert Smoke

I hated being there. But the finest moments spent in the desert were smoking cigars with the two other captains in my section, Steve Dinesco and Robert Toms.

One doesn’t think of a battlefield as a place for cigars and parlor room conversation, but we were princes of Arabian nights, stuck in the one place we’d have never chosen for ourselves but making the most of it. Popping cherries became a nightly ritual when battlefield business didn’t command our attention.

Dinesco was the battalion’s assistant operations officer. A closeted and staunch advocate of homosexual rights, he was tall and buff, a hard authoritarian with a soft leathery side that triggered the rumor mill.

Toms, a tall slim man with puffy lips, and I were battle captains working 12-hour shifts with mutual hand-offs.

We’d wait until dark and the field grades had retired to their quarters. The night crews had all checked out for the evening and the battalion operations center began to quiet down. Then we’d step out front of the TOC—tactical operations center—and light a smoke. It was the perfect way to unwind even though one of us—usually Toms—was officially on duty. They were peaceful moments.

Al Anbar. The province was hardly a hotbed of peace. Across the road from us we’d hear nightly battle fire—the shrill of M-60s and almost weekly rocket attacks. Occasionally, one of them would climb up the hill and land on the airfield we were protecting. The closest call hit just 100 feet from the stone building in which we worked. I was glad at the time to have been inside, although I could have sworn a fissure was about to open up at my feet and swallow me whole.

I’d have given anything for a Cuban that night.

The memories of a good smoke and good conversation stick around forever, like a bad smell or a favorite song. Dinesco loved to prove himself the capable officer. Toms and I were more of the don’t-give-a-fuck variety. Toms had reason not to care; no one liked him and he was as competent as a cheap stogie. Me, I was pissed off to know that I was an accomplice in a war that just felt wrong, biding my time like a bad smoke.

I finally got a chance to peer into the real Dinesco one night when the battalion operations officer, Major Richard Hawkes, was gone on R&R. Dinesco shared with us private conversations he’d had with the battalion commander. He made it sound like the commander was encouraging him to seek advancement into a more rewarding position. It was certainly an opportunity Dinesco would have welcomed. Toms too, though he’d have never lit the tip of any task he’d been given. I’d have turned it down just for the hell of it—and once did (a company commander’s position).

Dinesco made me laugh. “I’ll make an end run around that motherfucker.”

He meant his boss. It was the kind of man Dinesco was. If he couldn’t befriend you, he’d puff you out. And that’s why I felt then, and feel even more now, that I was in the wrong place. The military breeds scoundrels. And only the scoundrels win.

But you don’t have to be a scoundrel to enjoy a good cigar.

first published at The Smoking Poet