The Village Idiot
Following my sophomore year, I spent a summer in D.C. working for the Pentagon. Occasionally, my supervisor would let me off early, and I would find myself sitting alone by our capital’s marble monuments, scrolling through Instagram, checking my Snapchat, and reloading my email, waiting for a notification or two to keep me busy. Normally, I’d scroll through my Facebook newsfeed, but the safety orientation at work had pressured me to deactivate my account for the duration of my stay in D.C.
During our first week of work, all interns were made to take part in a presentation on operational security. We were warned that our supervisors could monitor our social media activity, and any online references to our work could land us in serious legal trouble. The presenter pointed to cases of interns being contacted via Facebook by foreign intelligence agencies and unintentionally compromising state secrets. Given my proclivity for communist jokes and the abundance of foreign nationals on my newsfeed, I subsequently decided to deactivate my Facebook to prevent misunderstandings between my employers and myself. Consequently, I was left with two social media platforms—Instagram and Snapchat—to communicate with my friends from home.
As the semester progresses, most courses develop an unofficial, semi-permanent seating arrangement of sorts, a passive agreement amongst students to minimize chaos. By late September, we find ourselves surrounded by the same set of lecture hall neighbors, carefully stepping over familiar rows of backpacks as we make our way to our seats.
However, about a month ago, a young man breached the seating treaty during one of my Thursday courses. Normally, I wouldn’t have cared; my early arrival to lecture guarantees me my preferred seat. What sets this young man apart isn’t his contempt for the unspoken laws of lecture, but rather how he led me to discover my greatest regret.
When my mother taught second grade, she would regularly return home around 8:30 p.m., working late hours as part of an afterschool program designed to provide underprivileged children with additional writing instruction. As she worked the nights away, my father and I were usually tasked with fetching dinner from a local pupusería. My father is a tall white man boasting subpar social skills and an expressionless face that mistakenly comes across as angry. Although he understands Spanish—the result of his marriage—his accent renders him all but incomprehensible. My task during our regular dinner trips was to serve as his translator, given that most of the employees at the local pupusería could not understand my father’s broken Spanish (or his English, for that matter).
Our interactions with the pupusería were comical, to say the least. My father would enter donning his stoic face and silently direct me to the cashier. Casually, I would approach the register and order the usual with my pubescent voice: “dos con loroco, dos de chicharrón, dos de queso, y una bolsa de curtido, por favor.” The restaurant would fall silent for a moment as everyone wondered what a man as white as sour cream and his pale son were doing in a tiny pupusería, but eventually the sounds and smells of fresh food and good company refocused everyone’s attention. Minutes later we’d happily walk away, pupusas in hand (and sometimes an horchata or two), eagerly awaiting my mother’s return from work.
About two weeks ago, I found myself driving back to Harvard from morning PT (physical training) at MIT. Exhausted, I drove past the Zipcar return point, only to realize that I had no legal means for making a U-turn without adding 5-10 minutes to my commute. The time was 0830; I feared arriving late to my 0900 Russian class, and I had no intention of incurring the wrath of my Russian instructor. Moreover, I disliked wearing my sweaty PT uniform to class, as the uniform simultaneously smelled and drew unwanted attention. As such, I was determined to return to Mather with enough time for a quick pre-Russian shower. Thus, I braved Mass. Ave., and—through a series of illegal maneuvers—attempted to slide the car back into its designated parking spot.
My passenger—a fellow grizzled cadet—yelled various creative obscenities as I dangerously approached the Zipcar parking spot. Smiling, I turned to him and threatened to drive the car into a street light, but at such an angle that only I would die, leaving him to inherit my responsibilities, as well as my smelly carcass. After a few seconds of silence, we erupted in laughter. I completed my dangerous maneuver, exited the car, and asked him if, perhaps, we had laughed too hard at my dark joke. His only complaint was that I didn’t materialize my threat. We stared at each other for a brief second, erupted in laughter yet again, drank some coffee, and went our separate ways.
When it comes to instructions that may one day determine whether you’ll live or die, you must ensure that your entire unit understands their equipment. As such, Army training often caters to the lowest common denominator. The guidelines on an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) advise one to lean the heater on a “rock or something,” the business end of a Claymore mine reads “Front Toward Enemy”, and the AT4 (an anti-tank weapon) is adorned with a childlike illustration of a soldier captioned “fire like this.” As it turns out, these illustrations and guidelines that I had until recently considered comical were designed for fools like me.
During our first day of summer field training, my squad was made weapons squad. For the uninitiated among you, a weapons squad is responsible for the maintenance, operation, and transportation of their platoon’s machine guns. The M240B, the machine gun that was soon to become my friend, is a large, bulky weapon than proves rather uncomfortable to carry regardless of how you hold it. Your typical weapons squad is comprised of your platoon’s most experienced enlisted soldiers, not some random square from Harvard. Nevertheless, the powers that be love laughing at my expense, and so after an hour-long weapons familiarization course, I found myself holding a machine gun for the first two days of field missions.