Apocalypse then

Jan 1, 2003 at 12:00 am

Sick pink booths. Sick pink lighting fixtures. Pink with some brown mixed in. One young girl waiting on 15 tables. But she’s good, everything a fluid stride. She picks up dirty dishes with one hand, grabs the tips with the other. She’s never out of breath, or patience, or suggestions.

“Try the Manhattan. People seem to like the Manhattan,” she instructs the scruffy lad across from me. This is the New York Coney Island on 14 Mile Road, not far from Oakland Mall. It’s filled with large groups of teenagers and chicks with big hair and dudes with lots of gold around their necks. The kind of girls who made fun of you in junior high, the kind of dudes who rammed you into lockers between classes. They surround us.

Michael Kemp smiles when he hears their whoops and shrieks. But it’s not a smile born of fellowship and camaraderie. It’s as if he’s saying, “Go on and laugh, you candy-asses. Keep on laughing, you pathetic, naive children.” I admit it’s a stretch to attribute that much to a facial expression, but you weren’t there for the story of the battle at Medina Ridge during the 1991 Gulf War.

“That was the largest tank battle since World War II. You probably didn’t know that, did you?”

Michael was an E-4 platoon scout gunner, I think. It’s hard to keep track of the nomenclature, the esoterica of ranks and weapons and job descriptions. I’m so fascinated with the many different names for things and that someone remembers them that I just hear the rhythm of the story, never the details.

Michael joined the Army at 17.

“It beat going to high school,” he says, sneering at the kids.

“I took basic at Fort Knox. Then they shipped me out to Germany. Then I got sent to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War. I just turned 19 when I got to Iraq,” he explains. This quotation has been stripped of all nomenclature, all esoterica. And there was plenty of it, let me tell ya.

I ask, “Is there really gold in Fort Knox?”

“Yeah, there really is. But I never saw it. I was too busy doing fucking push-ups.”

Michael rode in a Bradley tank during the Gulf War, part of a platoon that accompanied the larger M-1s. Their mission was primarily reconnaissance, to ride in front of the larger tanks and find out where the enemy was. They were the first line, quite often the first to come under attack.

“My primary function was to shoot everything between the positions of 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock in relation to the tank’s position. I once had to shoot for eight hours straight. It was like stepping into the fucking twilight zone. People dying everywhere. Everywhere you looked, you saw it.”

Although it’s hard to recall the names and numbers that fill our conversation, three words come up constantly: Randomness … chaos … madness.

When Michael utters these words, he glances at the teenagers throwing fries or giggling at some invisible joke.

“I was out in the desert with four other guys. That’s it. Just us. We were judge, jury, executioner. The only thing we had to worry about was ourselves. But we had to make moral decisions constantly. Every day some dilemma had to be resolved. We did the best we could, but some people didn’t. It was a war, you know?”

In the battle of Medina Ridge, there was a line of American tanks that stretched seven miles. They were going to attack an Iraqi bunker complex that was known to be crammed with Saddam Republican Guard. Michael’s tank approached the bunker as he was ordered, but he was squeezed on his right flank by some M-1s. They were pushing him right into the bunker. Republican Guard in front of him, American M-1s behind him. The missiles were flying from both sides. Kemp’s platoon was right in the middle. And then he heard the ground shake. He knew what that meant. He didn’t even have to look.

“The tank to my left had been hit. The M-1s had retreated without us. In later reports they called it a ‘realignment.’ Either way, they let us sit there right in the middle. The tank to the left of me was hit by our own guys. Friendly fire. My buddy was killed by our own guys.”

Some 35 percent of American Gulf War casualties caught it this way, Kemp reminds me.

The teenagers keep squawking. One chick is blowing smoke rings and punching her boyfriend in the arm. Another throws a straw at our waitress’ ass.

Randomness … chaos … madness.

Dan Demaggio dines with interesting people for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]