Saturday, October 15, 2011

Nightmares of Katrina 5

I've tried twice before to relate these, experiences. I hesitate to call it a story, because this isn't a story, it's something more than real.

I call it "Nightmares of Katrina" because this all happened while I was deployed with our National Guard unit to Louisiana for the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina, but in fact it had been building from long before that and culminated, apex-ed the day before the Autumnal Equinox of 2005, the day before Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf States.

As I wrote before, I had headed down to the New Orleans area the day after Katrina hit. We were ultimately stationed in Belle Chasse (officially, New Orleans NAS Joint Reserve Base - Belle Chasse, LA). At first we were billeted along the airstrip, then in the lawn outside the office building we were allowed to use.

We were each issued tent cots (like the one pictured). We also set up our own tents that we brought. The oppressive heat and humidity meant that, despite the stifling claustrophobia of the barely man-sized tents, they were still preferable to the heavy canvas tents overstuffed with men and women.

The heat and humidity were oppressive, but what made it worse were what I can only describe as fever dreams.

I've had these sorts of dreams when I was very young when I got high fevers. Things would seem out of proportion, the ceiling too close, faces too big, my arms and legs long and stretching out to the the end of my foggy vision. Nothing moved right, I would move my head in these dreams and my vision seemed to follow along sluggishly, like my mind was seeing through a thick, sticky ether. Then my vision would go off on it's own, undirected by the attitude of my face as if my eyes were swimming around in my skull.

In those dreams of my youth I would always dream that I was still in place, in my bed, on the couch with my mother attending me, though in strange and horrifying proportions and with a distorted, modulated, deepened voice that I could not quite understand.

The first night in my tent cot, I changed into my PT uniform (gray shirt and black shorts for exercising) and encased myself in the nylon sac like a spider's victim and tried to sleep. The exhaustion of the day made sleep come quickly, almost as if I had fallen off a cliff. The feeling of falling continued in my deleterious sleep. Where as in the flu induced fever dreams of my youth I had always at least been in a familiar and loving place, these dreams borne of the boiling nights of Louisiana were not. The first night I remember distinctly of falling, not far, but excruciatingly slowly and inevitably. Down I would go from some unknown, unseen initial point toward a seemingly innocuous and what would normally be, inviting scene, a covered pool on a moonlit night.

I fell in my dream, my arms and legs flailing, reaching, stretching, grasping for a hand hold, a foot hold, something to retard my descent. The sky was midnight blue, then paled to a too rich sky-blue as the bright, gray and yellowed moon brightened and heated to the searing yellow-white heat of the sun, right above my head, beating down. I could smell fuel, oil of diesel; and hair burning. I could feel my scalp burning, actually heating up like an electric coil and smoke billowing. I turned toward that terrible sun, though I have no idea, as we often don't about dream motivations, why I would want to expose my eyes to such torturous incandescence.

Sluggishly my head turned with my eyes moving at an entirely different rate and specific direction. Painfully I coaxed my vision to turn toward the glaring orb and slowly it did. As I struggled against the inertia and boson filled ether of my mind, the scene morphed back into the dark night, the moon returning as if she had been caught with her true light and heat exposed. A beautiful, though, no longer young woman regaining her composure. There would be time enough for raw anger.

Then I continued in reorienting my attention, struggling, wriggling as I fell; toward the direction of my descent. Below me, though for some reason I had the impression of it being above me and perhaps to the side or sides, there was the pool. Though it was dark and the heat of the day would have made any water seem inviting, this held menace. The cover was thin and green, impenetrable and complete. Below I could see the tiny bubbles forming, struggling to come into existence as the water heated to the boiling point. Down I plummeted at a crushing,unstoppable, glacial pace toward the cling-wrapped cauldron.

My heart raced, seemingly the only thing in the scene that had any inclination to do so, but it's velocity was not one that would bring about anything more swiftly except perhaps exhaustion. It thumped in my chest earnestly, desperately as if it wanted out.

The deadly, poisonous smell of chlorine rose in noisome tendrils like unseen vaporous tentacles wrapping around my head; and stabbed deep into my nostrils. It was accompanied, or perhaps replaced, my feverish mind couldn't tell, by the suffocating odor of chlorophyll-fueled methane like a hot, cooking compost pile covering my face.

Then I made contact, finally, with the cover of that damned pool. It was certainly no relief and the water below seemed to offer no buoyancy. In fact it didn't feel like the water was below at all. I was drawn toward it, into it, but not down. Gravity was more than complete, but somehow down was not the sensation I felt, and water resistance was not the slowing feature. It was as if I were being drawn like an iron filing, up through some gelatinous mass by an irresistible electromagnet.

As I moved, the cellophane cover wrapped around me, taking my spaghettified limbs, dead weight torso and unresponsively pivoting head all at once. There was almost no resistance from the water beyond the film, but my progress was slowed somehow. The encasement proceeded at a pace that would have made my unendurable fall seem breakneck. I could feel as the plastic bent and warped around every hair on my now naked and exposed body, every skin cell individually suffocated, smothered in an impenetrable cocoon of solid film that had no other sensible feature except closeness, tightness. The heat of the water beyond was palpable, and the filmy cover offered no barrier to it.

Suddenly my forehead was stabbed by some rounded icy point. It was sharp and distinct while also being blunt and fluid. I felt it again, and again. It dragged me back to consciousness, wrenching the switch of my hypothalamus from slumber to wakefulness.

I was in my tent cot, covered by sweat that provided no relief from the heat and being assaulted by drops of dew that had condensed on the inside layer of my nylon hot-box. My sleep borne flailings must have had a physical component or counterpart. During that first of many fitful nights, I must have touched the inside of the tent. Anyone who has done so can attest that you should never touch the inside of a nylon tent because they bleed.

Every night my tent bled, and because of the close quarters there was often no escape. I don't know if I touched the tent every night or if it never recovered from my first night. I do know that I never recovered from that first night, never getting enough rest I fell into irritability. I also don't know if my restless nights gave me nightmares or the nightmares ensured that I would have restless nights, probably they fed off each other in a vicious circle.

I did have nightmares each night. They were all similar, but different. One night it would be a covered pool, another night the membrane would be a dry cleaner bag, and another would be a collapsing bouncy castle like the ones rented for children's parties. Each night though I was drawn or pushed slowly into some suffocating layer. Sometimes I would almost break through, or pass through osmotic-ally, like a liquid passing through a molecular filter. I never did escape though.

These nights made accomplishing our mission, and my specific tasks immeasurable more difficult, as if the chaos of the situation and the complete lack of organization and overall, guiding leadership weren't bad enough.

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