I had to be under the influence of the heat when I typed those words. Nancy’s reaction seemed a bit bland on my end (she said something like, “Oh my,” and we went on with our conversation), but I later found out she was at our neighbor’s house and burst into tears after our conversation. After months in Iraq, with vehicles getting hit by IEDs on a near-constant basis, my minor little brush with a canal explosion seemed like no big deal — just one of those things. Not so to her. To her, the incident was huge, a reminder of my mortality, that the person on the other end of the daily instant-messaging session was in a war zone. But she didn’t say anything. She never told me until months later that she wept the rest of that night and was shaken for days.
Me? I just went on with my life, which at that point was thoroughly, completely, and totally dominated by an overpowering desire to escape the vast oven that was eastern Diyala.
“By the way, the A/C isn’t very reliable. Let’s hope it works.” With those words, a Sabre troop commander who shall remain nameless stepped into the vehicle, signaled the driver to start moving, and began the mission. I was in the back-left seat, thunderstruck.
Keep in mind, I was already warm. The mission began in the late morning, and I’d been waiting in my body armor for 30 minutes. The temperature was at least 110 degrees — and climbing. I was soaked with sweat and clinging to my cold bottle of water with all the ferocity that a drowning man clings to his life preserver.
“It seems fine to me now.” I was holding my hand over the vent, and cold air was pouring out. “When you say ‘unreliable,’ do you mean that it normally works or that it normally doesn’t work?”
The Commander Who Shall Remain Nameless laughed. “It never works.”
As if on cue, the air conditioner stopped. Well, it didn’t stop entirely. It just stopped actually blowing air. I could tell that cold air was in there somewhere, it just wasn’t blowing out of the tube. And so we began to bake.
As I sat there, I determined that the body goes through five stages of temperature grief. The emotional process of melting goes something like this:
Denial. This first stage was characterized by an irrational desire to mentally minimize the severity of the situation. It’s not so bad, I said to myself. I mean, I can still breathe. Then, as the heat worsened, I marveled at my own toughness. Wow, I’m a bigger man than I thought. Bring on 150 degrees!
A sweat puddle formed under the arches of my feet, which brought me to . . .
Anger. Rage built. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t build a working air conditioner? Doesn’t General Motors or whoever built this horrific pile of junk support the troops? Do they even care about us? Eventually, the fury became indescribable. I wanted to hit something.
Then I realized anger made me hotter, the last thing I wanted. So I started . . .
Bargaining. First with God: Please, God, if You make the A/C work, I will never miss chapel. Then with the driver: I will put your children through college if you find a way to get this A/C to blow cold air. Lastly, with the troop commander who put me in the seat: I will let you live if you ease my suffering.
But nothing worked because the broken air conditioner couldn’t be bargained with. So then I moved to . . .
Depression. I plunged into deep despair. All that existed was heat, sweat, and the annoying crackling of the radio. All that will ever exist is heat, sweat, and the annoying crackling of the radio. The rage turned into an indescribable sadness at the injustice of the world. Nothing will ever be good again.
Finally, with a gigantic sigh (which caused rivers of sweat to roll down my back), I reached . . .
Acceptance. It’s okay. Really, it is. I can handle it. After all, I could be hotter. I could be inside an oven. I could be roasting on a spit like a rotisserie chicken. I could be sunbathing on the surface of Mercury. And with this acceptance, an indescribable peace rolled over me.
Just then, the vehicle lurched to a stop. The door swung open and I stepped into the 125-degree heat of early afternoon in South Balad Ruz.
It felt like I had just stepped into an air-conditioned building. It was all good. I was fine.
— David French is co-author, with his wife, Nancy, of Home and Away: A Story of Family in a Time of War, from which this is excerpted.