This trip began much the same way my previous deployment did (as recounted in "The 50,000 Foot Nap of Death". After rising early in anticipation of freezing my tail off for several hours on end, my wife and I hurried to prep the kids for another day of school. After dropping them off we stopped for breakfast at a local greasy spoon and then she drove me to the air field. I hate saying goodbye but even more, I hate saying goodbye over time. So I checked in, walked her back to the car, and sent her off with one more kiss.
The first leg of our journey was again on a C-17 which took off right on schedule. As we sat and waited to depart, I glanced around the plane, which is really little more than a flying tube. It was loaded to the gills with all manner of equipment, ranging from large vehicles to small people. A vehicle near me had a warning sticker on it that read, "No Smoking Within 40 Feet From The Vehicle". I couldn't say what was wrong with it but I knew an English major had not composed that sentence. I figured that would not be a good time to take up smoking as I was well within 40 feet from the vehicle.
If you have ever graced the tubular interior of a properly functioning C-17 with your presence, then you would know that the sound is not unlike the sound of an industrial strength shop vac running at full bore inside an echo chamber. So, to ensure that passengers and crew exit the aircraft with the ability to hear a normal human voice, we were issued ear plugs. These are wonderful little devices. They are small bullet-shaped chunks of foam that can be rolled up like a playdough snake and inserted into the ear canal where they expand. This serves two major functions. The first is that they protect the hearing of the wearer by basically forming a sound barrier inside the ear. The second function they serve is to cause such pain that the wearer is forced to make a judgment call as to whether it is worse to loose his hearing altogether or be subjected to a lifetime of aural bruising. I like to think of myself as a practical man, but I'm not sure I did the right thing, judging from the lack of hearing in my left ear and the excruciating pain in my right.
Once at altitude, we were allowed to find a comfortable spot on the floor and try to catch a few hours of sleep. I happened upon a cozy portion of flight deck right next to the non-smoking vehicle and something that looked like a big box on wheels. The first thing I did was to reach for one of the greatest pieces of equipment ever devised...the self-inflating sleeping pad. I think the idea is that this pad, when released from the confines of whatever is containing it, will slowly inflate and offer a comfortable surface upon which to repose. So, I released my self-inflating sleeping pad to do it's magic and after a few moments of sleeping bag preparation and combat boot removal, I curled up on said self-inflating sleeping pad with no small measure of anticipation, only to find that it's self-inflating feature seems to work best when manually-inflated by mouth. Thus, I began to assist the self-inflation process until my cozy little pad resembled a thin, nylon hunk of three quarter inch plywood. Finally, with my manually-inflated-self-inflating pad ready to go, I climbed aboard in search of my friend, Sleep. Sadly, he was nowhere to be found! Besides the sensation of thumb screws jammed in my ears, my sleeping pad did not appear to be doing it's job. In order for the reader to understand why this is so, it is important to know that I weigh approximately 150 pounds when wrapped in a soaking wet yak fleece. Therefore, I have many pointy parts, including my hips and my shoulders (both principle sleeping equipment). Thus, in order for me to experience pressure pointless sleep, that upon which I seek softness must, by definition, be at least 13 inches thick. You, the reader, can approximate my experience by doing the following: First, get a large plastic garbage bag and lay it flat on a concrete surface (this will serve as your manually-inflated-self-inflating sleeping pad on the metal floor of your standard C-17). Next, find two large marbles. Laying on your side (as though feigning sleep) slip one marble under your shoulder and the other under your hip. Isn't that comfy? It doesn't end there.
As I mentioned, I had taken up some prime real estate between the non-smoking vehicle and a large-wheeled box. As I looked at this box I could not figure out what it was for. However, once I snuggled up to it for about 2 seconds, it became very clear that this thing's sole purpose was to smell like diesel fuel. And I must say it did it's job very well. The result was twofold. As the plane continued to climb, I flew even higher, reaching a place of euphoria rarely experienced by mortals. It also produced one of the most intense, brain wrenching headaches I've ever known. Fortunately for all, the smelly box car was not a smoker either as it too was within 40 feet from the other vehicle.
All that said, God bless our medics for providing Ambien(r)!
The final show stopper came as we approached the end of our first leg of travel. As I awoke from my drug induced, gasoline assisted, manually-inflated-self-inflating slumber, my eye happened upon one of my soldiers sleeping soundly in the arms of his teddy bear!