My stay in Kuwait was pretty quiet. It felt really great to turn in my body armor for the last time. That's forty pounds of gear that I will NOT miss. I chilled most of the day Wednesday: read a book, took a nap (when was the last time I took a nap??), hit the gym, and made sure I had everything ready to go that evening. Then we headed out to the airport. The place was packed, and so was our flight. I wanted to turn in some of my miles for a business class upgrade, but United was having none of that - all seats were taken. We loaded up and left right on time.
Sometimes I can sleep okay on planes, other times not. This was one of the "nots". Even with a bulkhead to lean against, I just could not get into la-la land. I'd been wondering about our route, what with the volcano in Iceland still spewing ash, but we followed our normal path up over eastern Europe, north of the UK, and just south of Iceland. I talked with one of the stewards who said that they had to move their flight path well to the south the previous week: over the Mediterranean and Spain, but that now the ash was blowing north into the Arctic, so the airlines could resume their normal routes.
We landed early Thursday morning at Dulles. Processing through immigration was quick and efficient, if impersonal. Dulles must be a miserable place to work, though, because not one of the workers I've encountered on several trips through there over the past year and a half has been remotely cheerful or friendly. Passengers, to them, are just a pain in the ass who must be tolerated and processed as fast as possible. Once through customs, I was met by my "limo" driver, PJ, and taken up to Winchester. Damn, it was good to be back in the US of A again! It was a beautiful morning: cool, clear, with green grass and blue skies, and very little traffic going our way. PJ was a lot of fun to talk with and we jabbered about all kinds of stuff the whole way. We arrived at the hotel in Winchester early, before a room was ready, so I parked my bags behind the counter and headed over to IHOP for breakfast. Oh my gosh, the pancakes, eggs, and sausage were to die for ... at least after DFAC pancakes, eggs, and sausage. (The coffee, no: it was more like colored water). I was a happy man.
The rest of the day was for readjustment. I was pretty worn out after the flight, so I had a nice afternoon doze, went for a jog, and hit a Mexican restaurant (run by real Mexicans) for dinner. Excellent! I hit the rack early, and was up and wide awake by 4 in the morning ... which was 11 by my body clock, so I couldn't decide whether I was up too early or had slept in!
The bus came and picked us up at the hotel a bit after 7. There were quite a few of us returning from Iraq, Afghanistan, and even some from Haiti. (Yes, the Corps of Engineers is very active in Haiti rebuilding). We had a full classroom for the outprocessing, but they have it down to a fine art now. We were poked and prodded, had blood drawn, and questioned about whether we had any suicidal or homicidal thoughts ("not now, but if I miss my flight this afternoon, I certainly will have some"). I turned in my duffel bag full of gear that they gave me a year ago and that stayed in the bag the whole time. Finally everything was done and we were loaded back onto the bus and returned to the hotels. My second "limo" driver, Pat, showed up and off we went to Dulles. Pat's an interesting lady and we had a wonderful time talking all the way down to the airport.
Dulles on a Friday afternoon was pretty much what you'd expect: a madhouse. Remember what I said about how friendly their workers are? You can double it on a Friday afternoon. And you can double the time you think you'll spend in there, since it's far more crowded than you think it is. I made it to my gate with five minutes to spare. And, of course, my flight was packed and they were looking for volunteers to bump. Not this guy, not today!! The flight to Atlanta went off on schedule. At 5:15 we flew directly over Asheville, and I could see my studio and all the old familiar places. I wanted to just put on a parachute and jump out right there - hey, save some time, right? Atlanta was just as crowded and nuts as Dulles. Again, I made it to my gate with five minutes to spare, and off we went, right back in the direction I'd just come from.
As soon as I got off the plane in Asheville, I headed out to the parking lot. Janis had brought the dogs. I could see them out in the parking lot as I approached and they knew something was up. They've learned that when they go to the airport, they're either picking Daddy up or dropping him off, and if he's not with them right then, that means they're picking him up. So their heads were up, they were looking around, and they were excited. I whistled at them and here they came, two little hairy rockets at full speed, followed closely by Janis. You couldn't ask for a better homecoming.
So my Iraq adventure is over. I'm getting readjusted to life at home now, and thinking about what comes next. I'll write up some final thoughts on Iraq in another post, but for now, I'm just going to chill. And enjoy being home.