When you are a long way from home, there is nothing that cheers you up like getting a package. In Iraq, we receive cookies and magazines and all kinds of personal items. There is nothing we don’t enjoy receiving. I even enjoy reading the crumpled newspaper used as padding. But when a box arrived from my brother-in-law, Mike (nicknamed “Bake”), I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect.
A little history will help you understand the situation. I met Bake when he and I played basketball together in college. He was a point guard, shorter than me, but aggressive, and could shoot the eyes out of the basket. We became immediate fast friends…but for all the wrong reasons. He was quite a talker and always seemed to have a group of girls around. He put up the three point shots; I just hung around for the rebounds. We got into so much trouble that he was suspended for a time from the team… and the college. I would have been too, except that I was a little more conniving. In any event, when my kid sister decided to come to my college, I pointed out that while there were many fine young men to date, there was one who she should strictly avoid. Bake. Of course, she ended up marrying him.
Over the years, we’ve continued to get into mischief, annoying our wives to no end. Bake loves to smoke cigars, but my sister will have none of it. So he built a tiny house out in his back yard to smoke in. Similarly, my wife will not have anything to do with me for days after I’ve smoked a stogie or two. But he keeps bringing them over and we sneak out like a couple of little naughty boys. So needless to say, when I saw the care package I fully expected he would send me a few cigars. It would be months before I got home, plenty of time for my breath to freshen up.
But when I opened the box, I got a lot more than I expected. There were books and magazines, an iPod with speakers, DVDs, and lots of cigars. In addition to the cigars, there were smoked oysters, sardines, anchovies, crackers, and easy cheese. That may sound like an odd assortment to you, but the last time I was deployed I complained bitterly about the paucity of fish food. Arabs don’t eat crustaceans. So he remembered and sent me some of my favorites. But the biggest hit was two very large bottles of generic brand mouthwash. At least that was what the bottles said. I had told him before leaving that Iraq was a ‘dry’ country. And if there was anything that I would die for, it was a good stiff drink. I told him how friends had received vodka in mouthwash bottles. So when I saw the bottles I knew I had struck pay dirt.
Of course, all such material is considered contraband by the Marine Corps. So I had a dilemma. If I shared it with my colleagues, I would put them in harms way. Moreover, I reasoned selfishly, it would take Phil, the other doc in the STP, six to eight drinks for him to forget this place anyway. So I decided not to tell anyone about it. Like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, I retired to my hooch to just stare at ‘my pretty’ bottles of ‘mouthwash’.
I waited several days to enjoy my treats, savoring the anticipation. Finally, I could wait no longer. I’d had enough of this place and wanted to just kick back, have a cigar and a cocktail and relax for an evening. It was late. I wasn’t on duty and could sleep a whole night. So I got a big canteen cup of ice from the blood reefer and started to mix my first Bloody Mary in months. I poured an excessive amount of ‘mouthwash’ followed by V8 juice, A1 steak sauce, and Tabasco. I downed it like a man slaking his thirst after coming in from the hot desert. But something wasn’t quite right. It looked like a Bloody Mary, but it had a distinct smell and taste of . . . spearmint. That idiot, I thought, cursing my brother-in-law. He got lazy and didn’t wash out the bottles before he filled them. Oh well, I reasoned, I just add a little more spice to cover the minty taste. So the next one had more A1 and Tabasco. It was better. But it still needed more to truly cover the aftertaste. I’ll try it with oysters, crackers and cheese, and more A1, I thought. Soon I’d downed half a bottle of A1, four cans of V8, a can of smoked oysters and a whole bottle of the mystery liquor. I felt good but very strange. I wasn’t sure whether I was drunk or just sick. I didn’t know whether to throw up, fire up the gas grill or floss my teeth. I finally retired to bed cursing my brother-in-law for his incompetence in cleaning out the mouthwash bottles.
Nevertheless, over the following two weeks I persisted in trying to find a concoction that would disguise the residual mouthwash taste of the vodka. At first I failed miserably. I made one I called Al Anbar Ice Tea that was barely above nasty. Cherry soda pop, which was ubiquitous at this camp, was good but made me think of Shirley Temple Goes to the Dentist. I finally hit a home run with olives stolen from the chow hall. I called it a Listertini. Scope on the Beach was made with Lime and Orange Fanta. It made me think of girls with little skinny bikinis with fresh breath. The best, though, was one I called a Root Canal. It was straight “mouthwash” with just the faintest hint of xylocaine.
After a few weeks I had consumed almost all of my ‘mouthwash’ and was ready for a re-supply from my brother-in-law. But I thought I might want to let him know about the aftertaste caused by the container. “Hey Bake,” I said after finally getting him on the sat phone. “I’ve used up all my MOUTHWASH, hee hee. And I need some more. Why don’t you send me some gin this time. And put it in a different kind of bottle. Those last two had a pretty strong mint after taste.”
There was a long silence. I presumed it was the delay from being so far away. “Dude,” he said after a long pause. “There was no booze in those bottles.”
“It was generic mouthwash from Sam’s Club. Your sister caught me with the vodka bottles and said I would get you in a lot of trouble.”
“But why did you send me two big bottles of mouthwash?” I was pleading for an explanation.
“She saw the cigars and thought you would need something to wash your mouth out after the smokes.” I was turning as green as if I had eaten the cigars.
“And what happened to the vodka?” I asked with a sniff.
“Oh, I drank it,” he said flippantly. “You didn’t drink the mouthwash did you?”
In the short course of two minutes Bake had gone from trusted friend to traitor of the worst kind. I went silent. “You didn’t drink the mouthwash did you, dude?” he repeated slowly.
“Oh no,” I said weakly, feeling my head spin and saliva well up in my throat. Is this how all those drunks on the street that I used to make fun of were led down the path of degradation? Did they have brothers-in-law who introduced them to the taste of mouthwash at a particularly vulnerable moment in their lives. I saw visions of myself lying on a sidewalk heating grate. I don’t remember much about the conversation after that. He promised to send me some more goodies. And I thanked him. After I got off the phone I went back and stared at my stash of ‘mixed drink’ materials. I felt sick.
By the next morning, though, I was determined to get back on the wagon. I threw away all my mixes and decided to take a shower, shave off my stubble, and start anew. After a hot shower I felt like a new man. A good shave and I even looked like I was in recovery. But after I brushed my teeth and began to gargle, I had that old familiar tempting taste. Without thinking I downed my whole mouthful of mouthwash.
“Did you just drink your mouthwash, Sir, or were you gargling with orange soda.” I turned to see a young Lance Corporal.
“It’s an acquired taste,” I snapped. “I don’t suggest that you get one. Oh, and by the way,” I paused. “Do you have a brother-in-law?”
“Uh, no sir,” he replied. “I’m only nineteen.”
“Well,” I growled, “I don’t suggest you acquire one of them either.”