PATRIOT GAMES: Getting (Almost) Away From It All

Fourth in a series of reflections by “Andy Tollhaus,” an Army officer currently serving in Iraq.
July 20, 2004
Delta Flight # 5986,
38,000 feet above the Atlantic,
A few hundred miles west of Tullamore, Ireland

Taking a break from war is an idea that has been around for thousands of years. Along with warfare, this concept has evolved with society and technology. Back in the day, the Romans would allow their armies to rape and pillage captured enemy cities as a way to blow off some steam. In the latter stages of World War II, soldiers in units relieved from the front lines were often allowed passes to Paris. During the Vietnam conflict, a certain amount of time in country would pay dividends with a rest and recuperation trip to places ranging from Saigon to Australia to Hawaii. The R&R program here in Iraq is as different from those R&R programs as this war is different from those past wars.
The program here affords soldiers the opportunity to take 15 days of leave from the war that they�ve been surrounded by for the past several months. It�s a way to relax, recuperate and recharge the batteries. It�s an awesome experience to get to go, but it certainly doesn�t mark the end of the war, not even for that one individual.
I was lucky enough to get my break from Iraq from the 5th to the 19th of July. My wife was able to join me and we decided to split our time between New Orleans and Key West. Sarah joining me for the 15 days was above and beyond any other benefit that two of America�s most unique and enjoyable cities could offer. Coming in the middle of summer, we were in that wonderful period on the sports calendar where baseball is the focus. Sure, the football previews are starting to hit newsstands, but it�s really just about baseball. There are about 15 Major League games a day to watch or read about. The pennant races are heating up and the trade deadline is fast approaching. Sarah and I attended a AAA New Orleans Zephyrs game, where I taught her the art of keeping score. At the game a young Louisiana National Guard soldier was honored for her service in Iraq and allowed to throw out the first pitch. On our way to the Keys, we stopped at a Marlins-Mets game and crossed stadium number 21 off of my list. (Of course, I�ll have to go back to all but the four stadiums that my wife and I visited together, but those are the sacrifices that one makes for love.)

Tuesday�s All Star Game was the only game that we hoped to watch in a bar, being this close to the Southernmost Point. We went to the famous Duval Street to find a place to eat, drink and watch baseball � is there anything else? After sampling some of the Happy Hours near the historic marina, we couldn�t find a suitable place. So, we hailed a signature Key West pink taxi cab and asked the cabbie for advice. The license plate didn�t say �Fresh,� and there weren�t dice in the mirror, but we did think to ourselves that this cab was rare. This cabbie, from Andover, MA, played baseball at Boston College and told us of his AAA career for the Baltimore Orioles and his one and only at bat in the Bigs � against Nolan Ryan. Not sure who was happier, the advisor or the advisees, but off to the Green Parrot it was. As I ordered our first beers, two guys at the bar pointed to my Milwaukee County Stadium Sausage Race T-shirt and said, �Hey, watch out for Randall Simon!� This was, no doubt, the place to watch the game.
Sarah and I sat down at the bar next to the other Sausage Race fans. We watched Piazza tip Clemens�s pitches to the American League sluggers and watched Manny and Ortiz hit their homeruns. The bartender from the south-side of Chicago laughed when we asked for umbrellas in our beers so we could blend in with the locals. He then educated me on the fact that his Sox were in a longer World Series drought than were our Sox. I didn�t believe him, but luckily enough, my brother-in-law was awake at 11:45 PM, standing by on Google for me. After hanging up the phone and conceding that the bartender was, indeed, correct, I did what any honorable man would do � I bought him a beer. There was a Mariners fan there who resented the Red Sox because of trades involving Jason Varitek, Derek Lowe, and Heathcliffe Slocumb. We also talked about the Key West High School baseball team and their contributions to the Major Leagues. To my surprise, Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo was a Fighting Conch alum. I couldn�t figure how I could be so lucky to have taken my wife to two games and now be sitting at the Green Parrot with her, watching baseball.
It was all so surreal, since only 10 days earlier I was in a war zone and in less than another 10 days I�d return to one. I certainly have not become numb to stream of names and death reports that come across the headlines and the news tickers, but for some reason, the deaths of five soldiers in Samarra on July 8th hit me in a strange way. Last summer in Germany, my battalion trained with those soldiers� unit, 1-26 Infantry. I personally worked closely with their staff as the liaison between the ground and air units for two weeks. I didn�t know many of the soldiers, but I knew many members of the leadership and couldn�t imagine the shock and grief that the unit was going through. Those thoughts had haunted me over the past few days. As I sat in that bar thinking how surreal it all was, my mind drifted to the grief of the soldiers� families. I sat there wondering what the circumstances were and knowing that I�d have to wait until I got back to Iraq to get all the details. I wondered if any of our Apaches were there or what guys in my unit felt. I�m sure that 1-26 had soldiers on R&R at the time and I couldn�t imagine what those individuals felt when they heard the news about people so close to them in some far off distant land. A combination of grief, thankfulness, and dread came over me. It was grief for the fallen soldiers and their families; thankfulness for my own safety and the gift of time with my wife; and the dread of saying goodbye for another six or seven months. Not to discount the emotion, but it may also have had something to do with the beer, as I�m certainly known to get emotional when I drink. All I could do for a few minutes was sit and stare. Sarah noticed something was up and quietly supported me, without fully comprehending what was going on. I put into words what I could but found it better to just lean on her for a few seconds.
As I stared straight ahead, I noticed that I was staring at a bottle of Tullamore Dew, Irish Whiskey. I hate whiskey, but for some reason, ordering a shot of whiskey seemed to be fitting right then. The fact that my shot was the last in the bottle seemed like it meant something, too. In reality, though, I drank that shot of whiskey not to make a point or honor anyone or anything poetic like that. I am pretty certain, however, that when I do see Tullamore Dew in the future, there will be a link to that moment and I�ll be reminded of those who died too young in Samarra, Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere else where the ultimate sacrifice has been �laid on the altar of freedom.� I don�t think I�ll make a big deal of it, but I know I�ll close my eyes, as I did then, during the All Star game, and say a quick prayer for those who won�t be coming home to pick up their life right where they�d left it.
Blue Spader!

One thought on “PATRIOT GAMES: Getting (Almost) Away From It All”

  1. Well, let’s see….October 2003…my wife and I watch the Marlins clinch the championship at the Green Parrott…in the middle of Fantesy Fest, for cripes sakes!! Band stopped and the TV was cranked for the final out, then went back to party the night away. Last year, my wife and I found a place that called itself “the southermost Red Sox Nation”. Rooting for the Sox against the hated Yanks, we managed to watch all the games…one in the back bar with our own personal TV at the Green Parrott. Some of the others at the “Southernmost” bar that I cannot remember the name of…..and the rest at Jack Flats across from Marguaritaville. EVERONE was rooting for the Sox (and the Astros).

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