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THEY'D EVACUATED THE office building in Kabul and called Al and me in to disarm the IED. Business as usual, except for the sixty second timer Al accidentally started when he jostled the bomb. Taliban sense of humor. I had to go to work fast at that point.

I’d grabbed my bomb kit and headed out with Al. He's my second. He drove and could hold a flashlight, but I got the fun job. I assumed my kit had all the issue I’d need. Never assume anything.  I discovered on the scene that I had no tongue depressors left, not the kind of mistake a bomb man’s supposed to make. Sure they told us to hot-foot it out here, but...

Sixty seconds! Sweat ran into my eyes. I had no time to blink. Removing the first three screws took too much time, so I put my screwdriver under the lid and pried up the access door and bent the thin metal up and out of the way.

With seconds left, I grabbed my alternate non-conductor, a ceramic tea cup I’d found nearby. Using pure adrenaline, I jammed it into the cramped space with hysterical force. The bomb’s clock read two seconds.

Zero!

The trigger mechanism clicked. The spring-loaded firing pin snapped toward the bomb’s hot contact. The cup shattered in its own small explosion. For a second I waited for oblivion, but debris from the broken cup stopped the onrushing pin. Now that pieces of my ceramic cup jammed the firing device, I began to hope.

The Taliban had started to distribute these deadly mechanical bombs in the last few months. They looked primitive and we guessed they needed electronics and couldn’t get them from their sources. Earlier the bomb boys captured a similar one that didn’t go off and I’d had a chance to study it or I wouldn’t have gotten close to the one in front of me.

Already my hands sought the inside of the IED to make sure the non-conducting cup’s substance stayed in place to prevent contact. The situation remained deadly dangerous, but maybe we had a chance.

“Quick, Al!” I called to my partner, “Can’t see. Wipe my eyes.”

Al reached up with a cloth and took a nervous but adequate swipe. His flashlight wavered. I didn’t look at him but I visualized his face a ghostly white. I didn’t need a mirror to know about mine. His life and mine were up for grabs and I didn’t figure with my history that we’d be meeting in the same place if we ended up dead.

I gave up on pearly gates long ago, but Al had a good-looking wife and two small tow-headed twin boys and went to church and he didn’t fool around. Couldn’t say the same for me, but we both wanted to live.

Peering into the mickey-mouse ramble of wires and C-4 explosive, I could see how precariously we all hung onto life. The cup had mostly crushed into small, razor sharp shards. Less than a quarter inch thick, the earthenware cup had a glass-like interior and exterior glaze, impervious to wear and dishwasher safe, as the ads say.

I couldn’t work with gloves, too sensitive. Now I needed them. This stuff could cut me and blood conducted electricity. It’s the salt. Bleeding all over the contact could make the bomb go off. Al and I’d be leaving the area in different directions on this side, and we’d never stop on the other.

I could see a flaw in the debris pattern and already the mess had started to compress under the pressure of the firing spring. Our nightmare wasn’t over. I had no time to do anything else, so I reached for a large, sharp piece that ended up in a corner of the box and gingerly felt for its flat surfaces. Got ‘em. Now to force it into the flaw before the firing devise powdered more of the shard that held the two contacts apart. Jabbing downward with force, the piece in my hand slipped and sliced my thumb.

“Oww!”

More frightened than me, Al yelled “What?”

I yanked my hand out. Blood poured freely from the gash. “Give me that rag.”

Al handed it to me. I had to use the bloody hand because of the awkward position. I wrapped the rag around my thumb and two fingers with my left, and then stuck my hand back into the opening to finish the job. There! Better. Life is choices and my brain told me I’d made a good one. Our training included getting the job done the best way possible. Let pain slow me? No option.

The ridiculous thing appeared stable. Now to work out the wiring and make sure the Taliban hadn’t left any more surprises. I knew we couldn’t pull out the detonators in the blocks of C-4. We’d discovered the month before that those clever bearded men would put a contact switch into the plastic mass of the explosive. It would go off if I removed the detonator, no matter how carefully.

We learn the hard way, as we Americans seem to for everything, and learning that particular lesson cost us a couple of good men, friends of mine. We do learn, though and I wouldn’t pull the plug on those babies. There had to be a way. Bomb makers always had a fail-safe, some way they could arm their bombs, but transport them without worry before they laid them out for our soldiers to find.

The wires were multi-colored, just like you see in the movies. However, our Army bomb squad had already discovered that their bomb makers would switch the wire colors to fool us. I played chess. I studied it for a moment and grabbed my wire cutters. I laid out a diagram in my mind, traced it and when the pattern completed itself, reached past two tempting wires and snipped the one below it.

“Okay, Al, let’s get this thing out of here.”

“Good going, Mack,” he said, “I thought…” He stopped.

No point. I knew. “Yeah.”

We hefted the forty-pound object and carried it to our military truck. My mind went to the ravaged land, the fear surrounding every dark place, and how these people who couldn’t go anywhere else could live like they had to.

I sensed darkness in the minds of these war torn peoples. We didn’t belong here. We came at the invitation of the Afghan government, however legitimate that makes it, but we’re invaders just the same. It made sense we’d be hated by most of the population, despite the spin the U. S. Government put on it.

Al got behind the wheel. He started the engine, switched the lights on and headed back toward camp, twenty dangerous miles to go.

“Nicely done, Mack.”

“Keep a sharp eye, Al. War has a way of reaching out, you know?”

“You worry too much.”

“Taliban don’t stay in those little lines we draw.”

“True, but…”

⇔⇔⇔

In a ball of light and fire the IED some nameless insurgent buried in the dark, desolate sandy road exploded. Their truck lifted five feet off the road. Mack and Al were dead before it came down.

War is hell!

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