When you go off on two month adventures around the world, you generally want the first leg to start auspiciously. So when I boarded my Frankfurt flight, I was disappointed to see a bulky man stoutly occupying the middle seat, next to mine. His cargo pant-covered-leg poked across into my Lufthansa magazines and his thick arm decisively claimed the armrest and even managed to spill into my seat, which meant that any attempt to break out of my cross-armed posture put me at risk of awkward nuzzling and brushing his arm. Occasionally I tried to resist this large man's tyranny. I would inch my elbow against the corner of armrest that he hadn't laid claim to, hoping that my aggressive gesture would make him retreat to a more modest position. It didn't, but it was worth a try, because when you're flying from California to Germany, these things matter.
I figured that if I couldn't outmaneuver him in guerrilla limb warfare, I may as well strike up a conversation, at least to drown out the racket of a half-dozen Egyptian children wreaking havoc in the next row. So I broke out the ubiquitous traveller's conversation filler. "So where you headed?" "Anbar." he replied, in a deep Texan drawl. I was taken aback, not sure whether to reply "Sweet!" or "Yikes" or "Wow!", but before I could say anything he added that he was going as a privately contracted security agent. It took me a minute to register register what that meant, but I then realized that I had been arm jostling with a real live mercenary. "Sweet!YikesWow!" I thought, having read that mercenaries in Iraq were hard hitting Rambo types who get solid pay for taking on jobs that the military won't or can't do.
It started by chance, he explained. Apparently he was doing a run of the mill "door kickin' shift" with the 8th Airborne in Baghdad when he ran into a team of mercenaries and casually asked one of them if they were looking for fresh recruits. They certainly did, and replied that the bulky Texan looked the part. All they needed from him was a resume, which he pulled out of a pocket full of excess ammunition. An now here he was, drinking Chardonnay on his way to the bloodiest province of the bloodiest country in the world.
He mused about his new job, like someone who'd just gotten a huge promotion. "You know," he said matter-of-factly, the Mexicans come to this country and make 4 or 5 times what they would in their country. They get a chance to build a life here and send money back to their families too. But what does Uncle Sam offer the rest of us?" he asked bemusedly , aware that most of his six-figure salary would originate in Washington.
Well, there's no one path to the American dream.