Please read the beginning of this story as shown within the “Afghanistan Story” tab above.
Afghanistan, June 2010, AUP Station in the Town of Delaram
Once the general left, the atmosphere around the compound was much more relaxed. Virkler and I could get to work installing CENTRIX inside the radio room. We pulled out the equipment and started the process of connecting the new switch and encrypter.
Networking is best done in pairs. There is one person to “drive” on the keyboard and one person looking on, suggesting ways to fix issues or advance through the configuration steps. These pairs of workers must be respectful to each other, and most importantly, understand how each other troubleshoots and thinks to properly understand and follow the logic. A perfect match within this pair are two people skilled in various different aspects of the technology and intelligent enough to follow what the other person suggests. It is a balance of teaching and learning between two professionals who have the same goal: get the network working. To an observer with no background in satellite communications, network design, or computer science, the things said between the networkers make little sense. To the networkers, you are exposing your logic, your intelligence, and your lack of intelligence with every phrase uttered. Setting up a network with another person exposes your way of thinking and will either earn respect or ridicule between teammates.
Virkler and I were hunched over his Toughbook laptop and murmuring to each other while the grunts moved around us.
“Put it on 1/1.”
“Nah, I’ll put it on 1/24.”
“That’s dumb. Put it on 1/1.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No, it doesn’t but 1/1 is closer to the encrypter. Saves cable.”
“Just move the encrypter.”
“Just make a longer cable.”
“You just make a longer cable.”
The logic for every step is argued, but in a friendly manner. Learning to concede to a better idea is one of the best adaptations that a networker can have. Listen to the team, argue your points, but always be willing to change the plan for a better one.
Sitting side by side, legs touching, the compound faded away around the two of us. My brain was focused on the screen, traveling along the wires that I could see in my mind, with streams of light that reflected the ones and zeros as information traveled across the wire. I was inside the switch in my mind, making connections, forcing the logic to work in my mind and on the devices as he typed and I tried to understand what needed to be done next. Absentmindedly, I reached into my backpack and grabbed the small package of six Oreo cookies I had grabbed from the chow hall on Camp Delaram. I shoved one into my mouth and continued to troubleshoot, occasionally speaking through crumby chews. Virkler glanced up at me as I talked with my mouth full; his face full of judgment.
“Where did you get those?”
“Is this the Spanish Inquisition? I dunno, a few days ago.”
“No, get your own.”
“No, my cookies.”
With a sarcastic glare, he turned back to the Toughbook.
“Time to make the tunnel. What should we name it?”
“SSgt Rambo didn’t tell you what number to use?”
“Did he tell you?”
“Well, we can’t just use anything, what if the number is already in use?”
“Does it matter?”
Virkler shrugged his shoulders. We looked at each other, thinking silently of the ramifications of using a random number that could cause the entire network to collapse. Suddenly, Virkler grabbed the package of Oreos from my lap. Unprepared for the personal attack on my cookies because of the slight sugar coma I was entering, I lurched after him.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! MY COOKIES!”
“Calm down, fatty.”
He grinned at me before inspecting the package of Oreos. Seeing that they were safe from harm for the moment, I watched him warily.
“Are you trying to see how fat I’m getting by eating a few cookies?”
“We’ll use 70.”
“For the tunnel. 70. It’s how many calories you’re shoving into your mouth.”
“Oh, haha, okay, sure. It’s only 70? Man, I need to find more of these.”
He handed the package back to me unharmed and starting typing again.
One left. I should give it to him. Psh, why? Why should I share? They are my Oreos and they are so delicious. If he wants one, he can get his own. Right? Oh, yes, right. Oreos never show up at Delaram and this was the last package. But I had five and this is just one. I can give up one.
I shoved the last Oreo into my mouth and focused back on the screen.
After a little, the tunnel was set up, and traffic was flowing. We ran cables within the radio room and then to a building out behind the main house for a solitary computer that would be used by…someone. The work was quick and we were done within 30 minutes. The sun was at its highest point as we finished. Glancing around, I found Sgt P to ask if they needed anything else done while we were there.
“Yeah, some of the guys’ personal computers are slow as fuck. Can you fix that?”
“We can take a look.”
He went around and asked who needed their computer looked at. As people brought us their laptops for quick maintenance, Sgt P suddenly spun to us.
“I almost forgot. We have a NIPR computer out back that we use to contact family occasionally. It refuses to connect and it’s also slow as fuck.”
He led me around the corner to a secluded area that held a lone computer. I went to boot it up and indeed, it was extremely slow.
“When was the last time it worked?”
“It’s been awhile. A month?”
I set about fixing the hunk of junk. Besides needing a quick defragmentation and deletion of a few files, I noticed that the cable connecting the computer was frayed. I needed to make a new one. I grabbed some cable and a pair of cable crimpers and started making the cable.
White orange, orange, white green, blue, white blue, green, white brown, brown
I repeated the sequence in my head as I lined up the small lines of colored copper held within the category-5 Ethernet cable. Sgt P watched as I worked.
“It’s awesome that you can do this stuff.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just fix things. You’re really smart.”
“Nah, I’ve just been trained. Same as you. But I learned how to slay cables instead of people.”
“No, you’re smart. I heard you and Virkler talking, setting up whatever it is you’re setting up, and I understood none of it.”
“Two years ago, I didn’t understand any of it either. Hell, I still don’t understand it. I bet you missed the moment in there where I needed to do something and I had no idea what I had to do to get it to work. Not knowing what to do is the worst. I feel so helpless…”
“But you got it.”
“Not without lots of question marks.”
P looked at me like I grew two heads. I explained.
“If you don’t know what to type, you can simply type in a question mark and it will give you options. You can guess from there.”
“Still, you figured it out. That’s really cool. You saw our laptops. We don’t do this stuff. We just use them.”
I laughed and shook my head.
“I worry that some day I’m really going to screw up something badly.”
“I think we all fear that.”
The weight of what he just said hit me and I was silent. If I screwed up, people wouldn’t get e-mail. If he screwed up, people would die.
How can I be freaked out about screwing up? This man has literal lives in his hands every day, even right now.
Sgt P continued.
“Even if you do mess up, you’re smart and you’ll figure it out.”
“Thanks, I’m glad you have more faith in me than I do.”
Even with the great disparity between our responsibilities, he comforts me.
I finished the cable, crimping the wires down tightly with the cable crimpers, and plugged the computer back into the network. Praying the connection would work, I navigated to Facebook.
“There you go.”
He immediately sat down and logged in.
“I need to tell my family that I’m okay.”
“Yeah, my mom freaks if she doesn’t hear from me at least once a week so I totally understand. I’ll let everyone else know it’s working.”
I walked back to the main building, feet crunching on the smooth rocks, and told the others that the “recreational” computer was working. Everyone sprang to their feet and sprinted to where Sgt P sat, practically knocking me down in the rush.
“Geesh, guys, calm down.”
Dumaw glanced back at me as he swung his long legs around to sit on the tiny stool in front of the computer.
“Dude, we never get to talk to our families. We have a single satellite phone and the service is shit.”
“Not your fault. You just hooked us up. Thank you.”
Sgt P looked very seriously at me.
“Moral is important here. You seriously helped us out.”
“Hey, it was just a cable. But you’re welcome. I’m glad I could help.”
“Just a cable that we didn’t know to fix and couldn’t have fixed if we tried.”
A sense of pride and accomplishment flowed through me as I watched Dumaw log in next. CENTRIX was important to the people in charge. The ability to send a simple Facebook message to family was important to the people in front of me right now, the people who matter.
I did that.