Afghanistan Comedy Tour Nov. 15th – 29th, 2004
Monday, Nov. 15th – 6 am: The wake-up call came too early. I had just finished a week at a comedy club in Reno, NV, and now I had to catch a plane to Los Angeles to make my plane to Afghanistan for a two-week, nine-show, twenty-one flight comedy tour for the Troops. It would be my 11th Military Tour in as many countries, and it wouldn’t be my 1st time in a war zone, but it would be the closest I’d been to actual danger spots. As I waited for the shuttle to the Reno airport, I decided to stick one quarter in a slot machine to see what kind of luck I’d have that day. It paid ten bucks – a good omen. Now I had to deal with a pocket full of quarters at airport security. There’s really no such thing as pure good luck. It was a quick flight to LAX, and Mike Burton, the guy who booked the tour, met me at the airport right on time. The plane landed at 10:30 am and my flight to Frankfurt left at 2:45 pm. This gave me about an hour at home to unpack from Reno and pack for Afghanistan. We got to the airport in plenty of time and LA Hardy, the other comedian on the tour, was there waiting for us. We said goodbye to Mike after getting some last minute instructions and checked in for our flight. As we got to the Lufthansa agent, LA said “Oh no, I forgot my passport!” What a joker, I thought… no he meant it. We still had an hour before the flight actually left, so he called his wife and she zipped down to the airport with his passport. Crisis averted. We made it to the gate with ten minutes to spare. The flight to Frankfurt took 11 hours, and I got about three hours of sleep. After going through surprisingly easy customs, we were met by two military personnel who drove us to the military airport where we got our orders and boarded a normal ATA 737 to Incerlik, Turkey (3hrs), and then on to Manas, Kyrgyzstan (5 hrs). We got Lucky and caught the next plane out of Manas after a four hour wait, during which we played pool and quaffed our two allotted Kyrgyzstani beers. This would be the last alcohol we would imbibe for the next two weeks. The plane from Manas to Bagram, Afghanistan, was a C-130, a military cargo plane with canvas seats, and we were packed in like sardines. The flight was four and a half hours, and it kicked our already tired asses. It was loud as hell even with earplugs and impossible to sleep or even move. We arrived in Bagram thirty-six hours after we left LAX, and I felt like an extra from “Dawn of the Dead”. It was great to finally get out of the stuffy C-130 and breathe in a lungful of fresh dust. Afghanistan had the dustiest air I’ve ever breathed. You get used to the taste and grit in your teeth after awhile. Now we had to find our contacts. We just assumed they would be there to meet us, but they had no way of knowing exactly when we would get in. Manas is one of the hardest places to get out of – some people are stuck there for days – we just got lucky. After waiting for a few hours in a sleep-deprived stuper, we got the bright idea to try and call someone and let him or her know the comedians are here. A few minutes later Chuck Younglove burst through the door. At 6 foot 7 and weighing around 350 lbs, Chuck was a veritable mountain of a man. An honest, laid back, tell it like it is straight shooter, he reminded me a little of an oversized Wilfred Brimley on steroids.
Chuck had a devil may care relaxed attitude which helps when dealing with the military’s hurry up and wait policy. We were informed that we had no show that night (It was Wednesday noon by then) and we would leave the next day by Chinook helicopter to do three bases (Orgun-E, Shkin, and Carlson) with Lt. Wnuk in the southeastern region; and then Chuck would take us on the second half of the tour mostly on the western part of the country. Our accommodations in Bagram consisted of canvas cots for beds in a plywood hut called a “hootch”, equipped with a refrigerator and a DVD player and monitor. If we wanted to make a call to the States or check email, we just went next door and got in line. Every base we went to, no matter how remote, had an email connection. After getting eight hours of much needed sleep, we met the Lieutenant at the Chinook bright and early Thursday morning. The Lieutenant was a slender, attractive young woman with a quick smile and high pitched feminine voice – the polar opposite of Chuck. It was a two-hour flight to the base and we were given an extensive tour and had Chai (sweet green tea) with a native Afghanistonian in his mud hut as his camels stood watch.
Then it was time for the first show. LA and I decided to Flip Flop (Switch off going on last) and I would open this one, he would open the next one, etc. We just had to do a half hour each, which is cake. LA killed with his bit about the one lone woman on base with all the horney guys. The one lone woman was the only one not laughing. She just sat there clutching her rifle and glaring. That’s the intimidating thing about doing shows for soldiers in a war theater. All the audience members are armed. You learn to stay away from bits that cut down a state or sports team. There is a no alcohol policy on all the bases so we didn’t have to deal with drunks, just less than ideal sound equipment and bad lighting. It always takes a few minutes to warm the crowds up to the set-up-punch line cadence of standup. The first few jokes I did were about being on the base and dealing with everyday life in Afghanistan and then I just did my normal set. The soldiers really enjoyed the show and we were given a certificate of appreciation and a coin commemorating the war effort and we signed tons of autographs on printouts we brought. They let us crash on cots in the heated headquarter room. It got very cold at night and all the soldiers had to use heavy sleeping bags. Going to the toilet (or piss tube) was an uncomfortable experience. All the bases had Piss tubes, plastic tubes protruding from the ground just about crotch level. I always tried to find them at night, but usually ended up peeing on the ground. The toilets were another story. Many of them were portapotties and some were plywood with improvised tire seats. I found the Michelins to be the most comfortable. The next day we were allowed to shoot the 50 caliber gun, a huge weapon, the kind you have to climb into. It was the first gun I’d ever fired and, man, that thing can inflict some damage. It’s amazing having that kind of power at your thumb tips. Friday morning we flew by Blackhawk to Camp Shkin, set up the speakers and did a show at 11 am, got back in the bird and flew to Camp Carlson and did a show at 3 pm and flew back to Bagram. Carlson is very close to the Pakistani border where the Taliban retreated to and where Osama Bin Laden is supposedly hiding out. There were some cool Special Forces guys on the helicopter who let us shoot their machine guns at targets in the desert. I was starting to get good at hitting my targets. The three-hour flight back to Bagram was at dusk and the ride was freezing, but it was cool to see the sunset from a helicopter.
We made it back to Bagram around dinnertime Friday, and we got to sleep in on Saturday because our next show was right there in Bagram on Saturday night. This was a much more organized show because Bagram is a pretty big base with about 14,000 coalition forces living there. They packed the Clamshell theatre(with an actual stage) with about 500 mostly US uniformed men and women. You looked out from the stage and saw a sea of rifle butts pointed your way. We had a killer show and signed autographs until our hands were sore. After the show I went back to the hootch by myself and popped in a DVD (Louis CK Short Films). Five minutes into it I heard a huge BOOM that shot through my entire body. I ran to Chuck’s hootch next door and banged on his door. He calmly opened it up and said, “Yeah, whadda ya want?”. I said, “What the F**k was that?” “Oh, sorry about that” he said, “That was me, the PX meatloaf didn’t agree with me.” Everyone’s a comedian. “C’mon, what was the boom?” I pleaded. “What am I Kreskin? How the F**k should I know? If you hear ‘red alert’ just put your long pants on and meet me in the bomb shelter,” came the Brimleyesque response. I went back to my cot and had a restless night listening to the airships taking off and landing. The next day I found out the boom was an IED (Improvised Exploding Device) that had been fired from a nearby mountain range and had landed less that 500 meters from me. I was told that the Taliban followers put crude timers on rockets and send them into Bagram base at least once a month. It had been two months since the last IED, so they were due.
The next day we were up at 6 am to catch a flight to Herat on the Iranian border. We waited until 6 pm (12 hours!) and finally heard that the flight was canceled. We spent the evening talking to the Lt. and Mike, a special forces dude, who filled us in (as much as he could) on what it was like to do his job. The Special Forces are like the cowboys of the military. They get their mission and McGyver their way around Afghanistan carrying out their orders. This guy was out to get Osama, but was not eligible for the 25 mil reward. I made a deal with him – he catches the asshole, brings him to me, I turn him in and split the dough.
We were in bed by midnight and at 4 am there was a bang on the door. I stumbled through the dark and unlocked the door and saw a soldier standing there. “You sirs leave for Farah in 15 minutes, sirs”. He said in a Radar O’Reilly way. Yes we were “Sirs” on this tour. Our Military rank was GS-15, which is quite high for a civilian. It’s kind of like being a Corporal. It’s pretty odd to waltz onto a base and outrank most of the people you see. It’s cool during the show though, because when I got a heckler they’d have to say stuff like, “Respectfully request permission to tell you you suck, sir!” I’d just deny the fucker and make him do 50 pushups. So there we were at 4:30 am at the airfield with all our bags and the sound system and we didn’t take off until 8 am. More hurry up and wait. We boarded a small plane with actual seats and flew quite close to the ground giving us a close up view of the villages and camels along the way. Some people would wave and others threw stones. We made two stops on the way to Farah – one of which was Herat, the base we were supposed to go the day before. There were pieces of downed aircraft, mostly Russian MIGs, littering the ground. The pilot was a grizzled, chain-smoker who flew daily missions in Afghanistan, and in the States he was a daring firefighting pilot in Oregon.
The Farah Base was the smallest one we’d seen so far. Up to this point they never had any live entertainment of any kind – we were the first. We set up chairs outside the PX, backed up a Hum Vee and used the headlights for a spotlight. It was a great show and everyone seemed pleased. They had excellent showers and toilets so I finally had a decent wash’n’poop. We slept in a building with at least ten other guys, side by each on cots. A whole lotta snoring going on. The guys we met at this base were very bored. One guy told me in a southern drawl that he was so bored that the other day --he almost read a book! They should change the missions name to “Operation Enduring Boredom” for those guys. Maybe it’s Bush’s plan to build an army that is invincible….. at Madden ’05. Those guys are good.
The next day (Tuesday Nov. 23rd) we took a three-hour flight to Kandahar, one of the largest bases. Once again we flew very low to the ground, barely missing the jagged mountain peaks. We fly low because the sound travels faster to the people on the ground. If we fly high, they can hear us 5 miles away and that would give the AMC (Anti- Military Coalition) time to set up a rocket launcher or something to shoot us down. By flying low they can hear us only a mile away. On the Kanahar base we had VIP lodging. This was an actual building with a real bed. LA, Chuck, and myself, roomed together, and another snorefest ensued. Once again we were all forced to wear earplugs.
At 7 pm we did an indoor show in the game room. This room had pool tables, foosball, ping pong and rows of TV’s set up for any kind of video game you wanted to play. Most soldiers were playing that violent San Andreas game where you are a gang member and you go through cities car jacking and robbing and killing people. Good clean American fun. The show was not easy. The microphone did not work at first and when it did it was so tinny that it hurt your ears. My voice was like an annoying mosquito to them. Good sound is so important to a comedy show. The next day (Wednesday, Nov. 24th) we had off so we could rest up for the big Thanksgiving shows.
Chuck woke me up at 6 am on Thursday, Nov. 25th and asked where LA was. I told him it was not my turn to watch him. He was probably checking email or making a call home. We figured we’d run into him at the PX, so we went there to get a bite of breakfast. After the powdered egg and unidentifiable meat omlet , we went back to the room. Still no LA. We drove all around looking for him but no luck. Finally we realized that we probably had to do the shows without him so Chuck and I started working out a two man act. We got to the airbase and went to the Chinook 15 minutes before we had to take off, and there was LA waiting for us. He told us he couldn’t sleep so he went to work out early in the morning and when he got back to the room we were gone. He said he looked all over for us and just sweet talked his way to the helicopter. Good security, huh? Oh well, all’s well that ends well. The Special Farces were back in action and ready to roll! Our first stop would be Lashka Gah, and on the way they let us shoot the Chinooks’ fixed guns (M60’s) into the Sahara for fun. We had a great show in Lashka Gah at 11 am. The homesick soldiers enjoyed the show so much they almost forgot they were in Afghanistan, away from their families on Thanksgiving. Then we jumped on the Chinook and flew to Tiger. The crew of this particular helicopter were called“The Fat Bastards”. They were a ragtag team of fun-loving fly-boys who really knew how to handle the bird. We went careening through the mountain passes and canyons like a roller coaster. It was exhilarating!!! We found out later that they had bets to see which comedian would puke first. We never even came close to horking. Every time they’d look back we were laughing and whooping it up.
We got to Tiger around 2 pm and right away the whole atmosphere seemed sad. We set up the speakers on a flatbed truck and started the show, but it was like pulling teeth to get a laugh. Complete opposite of the previous show 3 hours ago. It was our toughest show by far but we pulled it off like the pros we are. It wasn’t the soldiers’ fault; they were pissed off that they had to spend Thanksgiving in that godforsaken place and my little dick jokes didn’t make it any better I guess.
Then it was time for the quick 20 minute ride back to Kanahar. The Fat Bastards let LA sit in front and I got to sit on the open tailgate in back. That was scary and cool at the same time. It was “scool”. It was wild taking off and watching the ground just leave and get smaller. I got some great video. They actually let LA land the thing. I’m glad I didn’t know that at the time. On the ground the Fat Bastards commended us for being such fearless flyers and gave us one of their “Fat Bastard” sew on patches. Way cool day at the office. We got back to Kandahar in time for Thanksgiving dinner, and boy, were we hungry, having had nothing to eat since breakfast. They served roast turkey, Cornish game hens, lobster, mashed potatoes, and a bunch of other stuff. We were exhausted and hungry so we just dug in. We overate but that’s the American way.
We got to bed early because we didn’t know what time our next flight to Sahron (our last show) would be. We were told around 4 am, but nothing was certain. LA and I took some sleeping pills at 9 pm, which seemed like a good idea at the time. At 2 am Friday morning (Nov. 27th) Chuck flashed on the light and said we had to be at the airport in 15 minutes. I thought it was a bad dream. Sleep deprivation is like a bad drug. I can see how it can be useful in torture. We got to the airfield and waited until 4 am, when we were told our aircraft was broken. This meant that the show in Sharon had to be scrubbed, and the tour was completed after a total of eight Afghanistan shows on eight bases. Now we had to try to get home. We knew it was gonna be difficult and iffy as the flights are never certain and they’re always packed when it comes to getting out of there. It’s a case of being at the right place at the right time and being persistent and lucky and knowing the right people.
Luckily, Chuck was well connected and he had been doing favors for people so he could call in a few. Chuck is like the Radar O’Reilly of Afghanistan. He can get things for people and get them to far away bases so people want to be his friend. We finally got out of there and caught the midnight flight (a C-130) to Bagram. We arrived an hour later at 1 am and immediately checked in for a flight to Frankfurt. We were told to be back at the airport in three hours (4am). We did and then we waited around for another five hours before boarding the C-17 to Germany at 9 am on Saturday, Nov. 27th.
Of course we didn’t know it at the time, but one of the planes that left Bagram that day did not make it to its destination. I read in the paper that a Casa 212 civilian fixed wing transport plane that left Bagram on Saturday Nov. 27th with three US soldiers and three American crew members aboard went down in the Hindu Kush mountains southeast of the city of Bamiyan with no survivors. They don’t know why it went down but it really shows how dangerous flying in Afghanistan can be.
The C-17 we were on was a huge military cargo plane that carries large metal containers. The “passengers” sit on canvas “seats” that line the inside edge of the plane. The flight from Bagram to Frankfurt took eleven hours including a two-hour fuel stop in one of the other “Stans” (I think it started with a “T” and was desperately in need of buying a vowel). Having had a sleepless night the day before I was pretty tired, so I put some blankets on the floor and tried to sleep. Some Marines were on board and they graciously let me have one of their MREs (meals ready to eat) – Beefsteak with mushroom sauce. They showed me how to heat it up with a chemical packet and water. The meal was pretty cool, and not bad tasting either.
We landed in Frankfurt at 4 pm local time on Saturday. I set my watch back from Afghani time. It was very confusing for the past two weeks coordinating flight and show times. I had my watch on Afghani local time, LA kept his on Los Angeles time and Chuck used the military Zulu time (whatever THAT is). Chuck would say “Show’s at 4 am” and we would have to do algebra to figure out when it was. I guess you do use that stuff you learned in high school eventually. Our scheduled Lufthansa flight to Los Angeles left at 10 am on Monday. That was almost two days away.
No one told us what we were supposed to do once we got to Frankfurt so we decided to try to get to the main civilian airport and get an earlier flight home. We yanked our bags out from the palet on the C-17 and tried to get on a bus going to the airport. The guy wouldn’t let us on, and thank goodness he didn’t because when we went into the military airport there were some people, Bill and Monique, waiting for us at baggage claim. They told us they were there to pick us up and take us to the Sheridan Hotel that is right off the Frankfurt Airport.
We had Saturday night off and on Sunday we were to do a show at the Rein Mein base just a few miles away. Good thing we didn’t get on that bus! The driver was Bill, a 28 year old southern good ole boy with a sly grin and a lead foot that made his beamer fly down the autobahn. Checking into the hotel and having my own room was like a dream come true. Just walking on flat ground was a treat. In Afghanistan we walked on rocks all the time. Stumbling became a way of life. I’ve never appreciated a shower and toilet more in my life. I must have used the latrine about five times in the first few hours. I didn’t even have to go - l just liked sitting there. We were tired but we figured if we went right to sleep, then we would not sleep through the night.
Bill picked us up two hours later and we went out to the Frankfurt bar scene – Sachsenhausen, to be exact. We had some Vienerschnitzle und Spatzzle and a few alcholholic beverages at various cool bars and by midnight I was in my own room sawing logs. It was my first earplug free night in two weeks. It poses the question; “If a man snores in the middle of the forest, and no one is around to hear it, is he still an asshole?”. Boy, did I sleep! 10 much needed hours.
The next day (Sunday), Bill took us around the city and out to dinner and we did the show at 8 pm. The American football games were on and they left all the TV’s on during the show. At least we got them to turn the sound down. It’s a lot different crowd when you do a base in a big city as opposed to a small isolated base. They have so much else to do on the big bases they don’t appreciate the comedy show as much as the smaller bases.
The show went well though and then it was time to have a few festive beverages. Maybe a few too many for our driver because he took off and didn’t tell anyone where he was going. This would have been all well and good, but I had left my stuff, including my passport, in his car. I had to be at the airport in 7 hours and I had no passport! We got a ride back to the hotel from some kind soldier and I just lay in bed cursing my luck. To have come so far, and to be so close to going home, and now I was going to be stuck in Frankfurt until I got my passport back. I had to do a show in La Crosse, Wisconsin, on Tuesday; now that would have to be cancelled. As I lay there berating myself for leaving my passport behind, a knock came at my door. It was 5 am, and it was LA with my stuff!!!! I tried to kiss him but he wanted nothing to do with that kind of behavior. He said something about meeting in the lobby in the morning, but I was pretty delirious and it didn’t compute. I was too happy to sleep – so I just packed and went down to the lobby at 7 am.
I tried to call LA’s room and I pounded on his door, but no answer. I asked at the front desk if he checked out but they said they could not divulge that information. I thought he must have gone to the gate so I just went ahead and figured I’d meet him there. It was harder than I thought to get through German customs. There were at least five check points with metal detectors and searches. I finally made it to the gate, but no LA. He showed up a half hour later very angry. He said we were supposed to meet at 7:30. I messed up.
The flight back was 11 hours long. I slept about four hours and got a cab to my apartment and had one hour to unpack from Afghanistan, pack for Wisconsin, and get another cab back to the airport for my flight to Milwaukee for my next week of work.
Whew, no rest for the weary. I’m not complaining – I like to be busy, but it would have been nice to have a day to recuperate. As it was, I had to drive to La Crosse on Tuesday, Dubuque on Wednesday, and Madison Thursday through Saturday.
Sunday was my first day off since Nov. 9th and I really appreciated it. Now I have a few Corporate gigs in the Midwest and then it’s back to Los Angeles for a week or so. I have some fun gigs coming up so stay tuned for the next road story.
© 1999-2011 Rob Brackenridge
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08/02/2011 05:17 PM