For as long as I could remember, dad hammered away at us kids about the importance of learning how to drive a manual transmission - because we'd "be able to drive any car in an emergency." But the thought of paying attention to steering, other drivers and the car's speed along with fooling around with a clutch and a stick-shift filled me with fear (I once drove - wondering why the engine sounded so strained - halfway from Cleveland to Columbus in third gear.) But I learned and soon it was second nature. And dad was right (as usual). Knowing how to drive a stick got me my a good job at a commercial photographer's studio.
Now back to 2004, in Baghdad. From the front seat of the car, I had a close-up view of the swords. Impressive and menacing, it feels like inviting combat to simply walk under them. They are a part of a large complex: a stadium, the sprawling Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers (we called it the Clam Shell) and a long, wide avenue for parading tanks and troops. The swords, clutched in fists, rise 130 feet into the air. The arms and hands were supposedly modeled after Saddam's own and the piles of helmets, cracked and battered, that tumble beneath the sabers are allegedly those of dead Iranian soldiers, some 5,000 of them. Around the swords were acres of dull, hot gray surrounded by concrete barriers and razor wire, baked by the sun. It was a place as empty and useless as only a site of marches and triumphant gatherings of the recently vanquished could be. For a few years to come, at least, there would be no more parades. Grass and weeds had already started breaking through the concrete.
|Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers.|
He got behind the wheel and I told him to push the clutch in and out a few times, to get the feel of it. And then he said he was ready. He pressed in the clutch, moved the stick to first and - we hopped and lurched and stalled a few times and I understood my mother's unconscious reflex of pushing her foot onto the imaginary brake pedal on the passenger's side. I was doing it myself along with a white-knuckled grip around the strap above the passenger side door. He made a few loops beneath the swords, stopping now and then to start all over. He got a little better, but not much. He was far from ready for the open road, but I could see he'd grown impatient and was ready to go. We switched seats so that I could drive us back to the parking lot.
I knew that evening he would test out his new-found skill and again, I felt like a parent, watching her child throwing off the apron strings and heading into the unknown to learn and experience for himself. He was on his own. Not long afterwards and only a short time after I'd left Iraq, he was seriously injured in a car. He wasn't driving and in fact, he was not even involved in a car accident. It was something much worse. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but think about our short lesson on that warm, bright day underneath the shining sabers and how that brief lesson might have added detrimentally to his confidence and feeling of security while driving outside of the Green Zone late at night.