American poet Robert Frost once wrote, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall ... and makes gaps even two can pass abreast." Had he continued to respire into these troubled times, instead of succumbing to the humus in 1963, Frost might have written, "Something there is that doesn't love an occupying army ... and fashions improvised explosives with cigarettes dangling from mouths sans dentifrice."
Since my return from Iraq in September 2005, I can see from the news that the bomb makers are still busy. Three lives here, four lives there. Not to mention the amputees cycling steadily through Germany and Walter Reed. "Something there is that doesn't love a military occupation ..." But although there are many Iraqis who hate us, who welcome and toast and celebrate our deaths, there are also those who would lay down their lives for us.
Tatoo's industriousness was a caricature, like his namesake Hervé from Fantasy Island. In his emphatic mind, populated by exclamation points, nothing was too broken or too far gone to be fixed and made whole once more. He possessed a fanatical optimism that I can only begin to understand in retrospect, in the months since we have parted. I understand now, for instance, how for those who have seen the sun burning black, the average normal sun becomes a thing of inspiration, a profound thing.
Had Tatoo come across the remains of a destroyed T-72, popped open by a Hellfire missile, he would not have hesitated to state, "You see this? I can fix it!" Tatoo could take up a broken thing with his hands and because he had seen the sun burning black, he was always hopeful, in that exuberant fanatical way that the deranged can have, that this broken thing could be made whole again: a broken watch, a broken generator, a broken country.
Because he was industrious and persistent and because he had fixed watches as a young boy, his hands were good with broken things. Everything broken (all the lost little pieces) love the hands of a Tatoo. Alone in the world, without a woman, without children (viewed with pity at the age of 45 in a region where family and progeny and lineage are everything), Tatoo was a quixotic restorer of things, a high priest wearing blue jeans and carrying a Stanley toolbox. Struggling with a recalcitrant gearbox, replacing burned-out switches, cradling the broken pieces of the world in his hands, this is how I remember Tatoo; repairing things, things we did not understand, for we were soldiers and not engineers.
Tatoo was a pilot before he was an electrical engineer, and before that he helped out in a watch repair shop with his father before his father disappeared into one of Saddam's intelligence centers. At the rise of Saddam and the Ba'ath Party, Tatoo went into exile, crossing the border into Kuwait; heartbroken, disgusted, working any job he could find to support himself in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, any desert place other than the desert place of Iraq.
Over the long years he seethed at the plight of his country and his people, bristled impotently at the stories of torture, of corruption, of depravity, murder. He drank his customary black tea, replaced his man-dress with blue jeans and worked long hours at bad jobs in other parts of the vast desert that were not the deserts of Iraq, biding his time, waiting. Waiting for the years to pass. In 2003, with the invasion of Iraq imminent, with thousands of American tanks and American boys and American warplanes poised to strike out across the border, Tatoo traveled by day and night in broken cars and old Toyota trucks so he could be at the tip of the bayonet that would strike into the heart of Baghdad and topple Saddam forever. And when the first American tanks roared into Baghdad, Tatoo was riding shotgun, sporting American kevlar and blue jeans with kneepads, shouting from the tanks, "Rueh! Rueh!" He was happy to assist American forces as an interpreter, a position for which there was a critical shortage. From that day forward, he continued to serve diligently and loyally, under dangerous and difficult circumstances, over the coming months.
I first met Tatoo in early January 2005 when I was chosen to head up a training program for an Iraqi mechanized police brigade at Taji, 30 miles north of Baghdad. More than a year and a half into the operation, his energy and devotion to the cause were plainly evident, despite the grueling nature of the work and the hardship of being passed down, as an interpreter, from one unit to another as units rotated out of the country. In the dusty tent encampment of some 850 Iraqi trainees, two Americans and a handful of Afrikaner mercenaries (South African paramilitary civilians constitute the third-largest foreign army in Iraq), he was up before us all, praying on his prayer mat to Allah.
Tatoo rarely complained about the conditions at Taji, which were oppressive. Living in dusty windblown tents, supported by failing generators, broken septic lines, sporadic and unreliable logistical networks, incessant demands from sullen Iraqi trainees, insurgent mortars and rockets, dust and heat, constant uncertainty, clamoring Iraqi trainees with dental problems and pay problems and marksmanship problems and dietary problems and insurgent death threat problems and sore throat problems and vehicle maintenance problems and leadership problems and uniform problems and death in the family problems and all clamoring, "Jibli, jibli, jibli, give me, Mister, give me." Despite these conditions, Tatoo would still maintain, “I can taste the freedom."
When our Iraqi interpreters were cleared to join us for meals in the air-conditioned chow hall on the American side of the base, Tatoo was quietly moved by the abundance. Heaping dishes of meat and corn and chicken wings and salads and fruit pies and chocolate cake and ice cream and honey mustard dressing in individual packets and refrigerators humming happily in every corner and automatic drink dispensers and ice dispensers and three varieties of milk on tap. I wanted to cry when he leaned forward over his tray, crowded with cans of Red Bull, buffalo wings, potato chips, pasta salad and french fries, and whispered solemnly, peering over the top of his glasses: “I feel like I am in America!”
Tatoo's regard for America reminded me of my own father, born in a place as far and distant from America as Tatoo had been. The Philippines, growing up under the Japanese occupation in the early '40s following Pearl Harbor, bayoneted and beaten and starving before P-40s and B-17s and American cowboys rode roughshod over the Japanese and took the islands back. He remembers the smell of food that the GIs brought with them. The sizzling beauty of Spam: It was the smell of freedom, of liberation. He wept at his naturalization ceremony more than 30 years later at a Los Angeles courthouse in 1976, holding the hand of his four-year-old son.
A young American sergeant, Sgt. Ernesto Comacho, a 22-year-old from Oregon, walks and breathes today due to a blood transfusion received on the mean streets of Baghdad. When it came time for his unit to redeploy to the States, Sgt. Comacho tearfully bid farewell to Tatoo, telling him, “I can't take you with me, but a part of you is going back with me to Oregon, back to America.” It was Tatoo who bared his arm to the medic when the patrol was hit, telling him calmly, “Take my blood. I am universal donor. O positive.”
Tatoo remains in Iraq, his future uncertain. But despite being childless and wifeless, he's now part of the Internet revolution. I hear from him now and again on the Yahoo account I helped him set up one night in Taji when the generators were cooperative and the rest of the camp was sleeping. He wrote several weeks ago to wish me well in my new job:
Hello captin limkin
I am to heard you are started with new job & we every day see the trees when we are coming from the DFAC. bleave me we miss you my friend
my regards, tatooooooooooo
One day, Tatoo will make his way to America, hopefully before Americans have abandoned the earth for another planet, which is Tatoo's secret fear. I tell him he must get here before then.