Traveling, the Middle East, and the Zac Brown Band, Day 3

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Yesterday was 18 hours long, from 6 a.m. breakfast till midnight. Today started later with two call times, one at 9 a.m. to drop off bags, and the other at 11 to drive to the airport.

“How’d you sleep?” “Did you sleep?” is always the talk of the day on the first few days of a time zone change like this. Some sleep, some don’t. I did. But sleeping doesn’t mean you’re on that time zone yet.

By now we’ve all gathered a few impressions and are excited about going into Iraq. We’ve each had some individual conversations with soldiers and are sharing them among our own group. We’re impressed with the professionalism of the soldiers, especially when taking into account the young age of most of them. This is a volunteer army; these men and women are signing up on purpose. We’re beginning to see a point-of-view of the Iraq situation from inside, from the people who know. We’re all interested in finding out more.

But we have to fly first, and that requires body armor. We take a shuttle to the airport and get to the military side, where we are assigned a Kevlar vest and helmet. These are to be worn when we fly from here on out, in a C-130 plane, and for some of the group, in a Blackhawk helicopter. Luckily it’s not hot, because if it were, it would be unbearable inside that plane waiting to take off. We suit up and load into this cargo plane, sitting in sling seats along the sides, facing in, with knees rubbing those across from us. There are two rows of this, as we’re getting a free ride along with soldiers on a mission. I listen to my group talk amongst themselves. It’s community talk, with everyone pitching in the next funny line in a conversation about nothing. Videographers Darren and Peter are pros at this. I inject something here and there, but nobody hears. I have to step up my game.

We take off from Kuwait and fly 90 minutes to Baghdad. Our descent was a bit of fun because we remained high until the last minute and then dropped like a bird of prey to the landing strip. We weren’t quite weightless, but certainly lighter, and it’s all inside a tube with only a couple windows that provide no view whatsoever. I could easily puke at this particular juncture. I employ a strong will and good attitude, which works for a short burst of this kind of thing. Prolonged, my attitude and will would succumb to my stomach, but we are on the ground, luckily, before that happens. The only thing worse than getting sick is being “the guy” who got sick.

Welcome to Baghdad! I can’t believe I’m here, and neither can anyone else. Our welcoming committee has been enthusiastic everywhere we land, and this was no exception. I mean, this is Zac Brown paying a visit, and beyond that, it’s people from home. They’re appreciative, and we try to explain that the pleasure is all ours. That is never quite believed, at first, but somehow we try to make that impression. In the end, I think they believe us, but they certainly are happy we’re there.

They have bulletproof cars for us to travel in — Chevy Suburbans with doors that weigh 500 pounds, and vans that look like an ice cream truck, loaded with seats for us. The box of the van is made from thick Kevlar, and the windows are an inch thick. It’s still possible to get shot at, but we’re hearing already that it’s nothing like it used to be and that there is very little action out there. Our troops are withdrawing, and Iraq is beginning to have a country again, only this time it’s a democracy.

Sixty-seven percent of their population recently turned out to vote. That’s better than we get. Our job was to protect the people coming to the polls. The bad guys would love to harm or kill those people in an attempt to scare the rest away. I guess they failed, and we succeeded.

You’re not going to believe this, but we stayed in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Now that’s freaky. This was a huge palace in the center of Baghdad, with a “hunting lodge” as part of the compound. A giant lake centered the circle of buildings. I guess he brought in lions and tigers and bears, and they shot them in the parking lot.

I’ve visited many of the great castles and palaces of Europe, and every one of them now belong to the people after beheading or exiling their rulers who built them. I’m not the first person to come back and use an overthrown palace as a hotel, with the army using it as headquarters. It’s happened over and over throughout history, but it’s still amazing to be one of those people.

Across from my room was an alcove with gilded furniture and two chairs that sat side by side. I was told it was where Mike Wallace from 60 Minutes interviewed Saddam. I got a photo of Zac and me sitting there, with me playing the small GS prototype I brought. What else am I gonna do?

They had a little cafeteria set up, and we found our way to it. Good food, plenty of it.  They had ice cream. It wouldn’t be good for me to travel with Zac a lot because all I need is the slightest encouragement and I eat too much and all the wrong things. Zac’s eyes light right up when we see the ice cream. We dive in. We ate pumpkin pie in Saddam’s palace. We weren’t irreverent but certainly not reverent either. I had to get a photo of it.

We had a little free time, and I played guitar on the veranda by the lake. It’s a man-made lake, which required that Saddam shut off all the water to Baghdad for three days to fill it.  Baghdad’s the size of Los Angeles. There’s a blimp in the sky that flies super cameras, which the army use to keep an eye on things. Zac came out and we played with the guitar. Soon Darren was hanging with us, and before we knew it, we were filming a little commercial for the guitar. What a location!

Concert time came, and we transferred over to the venue on the base. It’s outside, and there are 2,500 soldiers waiting for this to start. All day long we’re chatting people up, taking photos and signing autographs. You might imagine that there are some Taylor Guitars fans along the way for me to talk to, and I’m having my share of giving and receiving some love on that level.

Many of our troops over there are made up of reserves and National Guard. When they send units over, they all come from the same place, so there is some natural camaraderie there. And as luck would have it, they all seemed to be from the South, which is where Zac and the band hail from. That helped the whole feeling. It was good.

By now I’m getting to know Jake, Eric and Mike, Zac’s crew. Jake runs the monitor sound on stage. He’s responsible for getting each guy in the band the mix they need in their ear buds. He’s got a great personality and is good at making friends quickly. All the soldiers take to him and someone gave him a patch off their jacket. Military jackets are blank, with Velcro, and everyone’s name, rank, unit, etc. are all made up of patches that simply stick on. Jake instantly had fallen in love with this and had two or three by now. He’s a happy camper.

Mike is Zac’s guitar tech. He’s new to this and learning. But he tunes and readies Zac’s guitars. He’s young, just out of college, and is having a grand time doing this job. He’s certainly part of the pack, and I like him a lot.

Eric runs the front-of-house sound. Very nice guy, and I think he’s from the Northeast, the Boston area. I haven’t figured out the connection, where they all met, or anything like that yet, but he’s another very nice guy. They have a groovy group going here, and I’m happy to start to know them.

Traveling with us is a backline company called Coaxial International, from Kuwait. They provide the sound and lighting equipment. It’s a big pallet of road cases with everything you need to provide a show to our large audiences. Six people are traveling from Coaxial. Their leader is James. He’s quiet but it turns out he’s a Taylor Guitars fan, so we are getting to know each other.

Then there is Jeremy, the USO tour leader, and Brian, who came from Argentina to be the USO road manager. There’s Mark, who is USO public relations, and Erik, the USO photographer. As you can see, we’re about 20 people strong, and I’m starting to figure out on this third day who is who. I’m having a good time with them all.

They had a green room at each base, and this one was large. Soon, Lieutenant General Robert Cone came in and greeted us and told us about his base, Camp Striker. He’s got three stars on his hat, and he loves his soldiers and his mission. We learned a lot from him. I felt privileged to meet him, to hear his point of view and for him to take the time to come greet us. He’s three years younger than me. I’m such a grandpa, and that is continuing to become clearer all the time. Ugh.

Lt. Gen. Cone is a big Zac Brown fan and was enthusiastic to introduce the band when the time came. He got it all right, and his men and women were ready to rock! If I think to the Viet Nam days, when I was a kid who barely missed being drafted, and I think about the soldiers and the leaders, the kids and their parents, I remember what a generation gap their was during that era. If you’re my age, it’s likely that your folks didn’t care for or listen to the same music you listened to when you were young. That’s not the case now. More often than not, kids and parents are listening to a lot of the same music, and it was particularly satisfying to see that the leadership, who were my age, and their soldiers, who are my kids’ age, both felt like the Zac Brown Band was their favorite band.

The concert this night was incredible. You’re not going to find a more appreciative or enthusiastic crowd than this. People at home have a great time at concerts, but this is different; these people took it to another level.  I couldn’t keep my eyes off them and how happy they were.

Back at the palace’s hunting lodge, the cook turned out to be from Louisiana. Knowing the band was from the South, he made us a big ol’ gumbo and some southern fixin’s to have waiting for us when we returned from the concert. This would be our fourth meal of the day, with everyone happy to dive in. It was nearly midnight by now.

I had many conversations with soldiers, and my impressions are starting to form. I’m going to start talking about them tomorrow.