In Memoriam: Gary Heyne’s Iraqi Adventure

Over the weekend one of Shanghai’s sweetest and best loved characters, Gary Heyne, passed away [obituaries here and here] [UPDATE: my friend Jim Fallows has penned a lovely remembrance of Gary, here]. Many folks knew Gary as the brewmaster and partner at the esteemed Boxing Cat Brewery. And that’s how he wanted it: he was a great brewer (according to people who understand what that means better than I do), and an amazing conversationalist. Truly, I don’t think anybody who ever spent more than thirty seconds with the man ever forgot him. Now, as it happens, I’m not much of a drinker, so I never got to know Gary the Bar Stool Philosopher as well as some folks. But I am a writer. And writers tended to have a special relationship with Gary. First, because he was incredibly well-read. But also because Gary Heyne had a book that he wanted to write. Or, more precisely, he wanted somebody to help him complete the book that he’d already started.

I’m not sure how many Shanghai-area writers he approached about the project over the years, but I suspect that I might’ve been among the first: the 11,000-word manuscript, adamantly titled “Get Sent,” arrived in my email inbox at 8:50 PM on March 23, 2007. For lots of reasons, I wasn’t the writer that Gary was seeking, and I’d mostly forgotten the manuscript until this weekend’s sad news. So, for his friends in Shanghai and around the world, I’m going to post the short first chapter. If you knew Gary, it’s going to make you laugh with recognition: everything ‘G-Man’ is in there. If you didn’t know Gary, you’re going to wonder why I didn’t agree to work on the book with him. The chapter will start after the page jump, and in honor of Gary, a total gentleman in all things, I feel obligated to warn you that it contains some adult language and situations.

1

“Who the fuck are y’all and what are y’all doing on my goddamn runway?” spewed forth from the Sgt. Major’s vile tongue. And I thought to myself, “So this is Camp Anaconda…

… In March of 2003 the United States was poised for the invasion of Iraq. The spirit in America was high for retribution of 911 and I had a Maverick Texas Spirit for adventure. I had just left a Head Brewers position at a micro brewery, in Clear Lake, Texas about a mile away from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, but still hung out in their bar with an interesting array of local characters.

The night the US invaded Iraq, me and the wild ones were at the bar gathered around the big screen watching “Shock and Awe” on CNN, live from the balcony of the Al Rashid Hotel in downtown Baghdad. When a buddy of mine, Website Rob said,” Wow, there are sure going to be an awful lot of civilian contractors jobs opening up pretty soon.”

This really grabbed my attention, as well as about ten other guys. We, being the type for trail blazin’ adventure, all started chiming in about how cool it would be to go to Iraq and give back something to our country while making some fat cash to boot. The more the beer filled our bellies, the more bravado and testosterone filled the room. Here we have by now, a dozen or more polluted Texans, at this particular bar, ready to invade Iraq ourselves! I mean everyone was on the bandwagon, willing to go put his ass on the line and go work in Iraq. Being that we were in Houston, all of  us knew at least one Halliburton employee that may be able to point us toward the door that reads, “This way to Baghdad”. As the courageous drunks ambled out the door, high fiving each other all the way out to the parking lot, me and my buddy, Dan Collins, started to formulate our plan to go to the Middle East in a more serious tone.

Dan had been a regular customer of mine when I first started brewing professionally about 8 ½ years prior to the present subject matter. He was a former Navy SEAL and a very boisterous individual. Six foot four, 240 lbs. of muscle with chisel-hewn features, and throw in a Type A personality. He drove 18-wheelers for a living; Dan the Truck Drivin’ Man! He loves to drink beer, canoe the Guadalupe River, and listen to Robert Earl Keen Jr., a mad Texan in his own right. I nicknamed him Lt. Dan, partially from Gary Seneese’s role in Forest Gump coupled with his military background, though Dan wasn’t a Lt. in the Navy. As I mentioned, Dan was a fun guy but he also had a low tolerance for bullshit and an awful short fuse; not a good idea to get on the man’s bad side. He is also funny as hell.

About a week later, Dan and I had already put several hooks in the water hoping to land a cool job. I was a bit uncertain what I would be doing in Iraq since all of my life I had been involved in sound engineering, playing guitar, and brewing beer. Why on Earth would the Army want a beer-drinking musician as one of their contractors? Does that job exist? Well, sort of, I’ll get to that later.

A few days later, I ran into another former customer of mine and Halliburton employee. He said,” I heard you left the brewery”.

“Yeah, I wasn’t happy brewing the lame corporate formulations that they wanted me to brew. I was having a rough time being able to look myself in the eyes of a morning.” I lamented.

“What do you know about water?” he asked.

Water being the base and key ingredient in beer, it was imperative to have a good understanding of it and it’s principal compounds. I knew all about Reverse Osmosis, Deionization, and had some basic understanding of desalination. In fact as a teenager, my father had a water well drilling company I worked for during summer months so I could afford to buy more guitars; an addiction to this day that I cannot seem to shake. So working for the old man I developed an early understanding of what made water both good and bad. So my answer was, “Yes, I know a considerable amount about water”.

He thought this to be the case. He then told me that Halliburton was going to need water specialists in the Mid East; he then gave me a number of a Human Resource (HR) person at his Houston offices.

I called the HR lady just a few short hours later only to be put through a labyrinth of telephone purgatory. Halliburton does not make anything easy, this call made it very apparent. After spending a little over an hour trying to get through all of the prompts, I thought that there has to be a kinder and gentler way of getting sent to Iraq than this nonsense. So I hung up the phone and thought perhaps that this route was not meant to be.

I picked up the phone again and gave Bart Whitrock, owner of Rockin’ Robin Vintage Guitars, a call to get a part time job so I could survey the job market while making a bit of extra scratch. Bart welcomed me with open arms. I had worked for him a number of years earlier and always did an extraordinary job for him. I was the Vintage and Boutique guitar guru of the Bayou City and did artist relations for guitar addicted rock stars who came through town on tour and needed a Stratocaster or Les Paul fix. So after 9 years, I’m back at the “Bird” selling cool guitars again.

A few months pass by; Dan and I are still trying to get on with Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a Halliburton subsidiary. We found out that KBR was heading up LOGCAP III (Logistics Civil Augmentation Program), where they supply the US Army with a plethora of services. These services range from Dining Facilities (DFAC) to Electricians, Logistics to Carpentry, Laundry to Materials, and a host of others. I knew they needed Reverse Osmosis Purification Unit (ROWPU) techs and that I was the man for the job. So I’m at work one day selling expensive wood and I get this call from Lt. Dan; he found out that a friend of ours, Brian Nelson, had been in Iraq for a couple of months working as a Labor Foreman and that he gave Dan a real KBR recruiters direct phone line! We were stoked. Dan called them first; called me a half an hour later telling me it was a breeze and he was going to Iraq to drive trucks. I guess it was my turn to give it a go; so, I got hold of this gal named Theresa. I told her that I was ready to go to Iraq and check it out. Then Theresa started trying to talk me out of it telling me of the dangers, harsh living conditions, scorpions, sand vipers, and the like. I knew what living in the Middle East was like, as a young boy my Dad and the rest of my family moved to Tripoli, Libya for two years where my father had worked for Halliburton. In fact, we were living there when Momoir Khadafi threw his coup and ousted King Ebrus. I was 4 ½ years old and still vividly remember watching tracer rounds being fired in the air at night during Khadafi’s transition to power. My tenacity prevailed and poor Theresa just couldn’t talk the GMan out of going. She told me to send a copy of my Passport, resume, driver’s license, and I had to answer this questionnaire then fax it back to them. All of this was for the Department of Defense (DOD) background check. Then she scheduled me for LOGCAP orientation 3 weeks later.

Now Dan and I are burning up the phones getting in touch with all of the guys that were earlier all gung ho for this dashing and bold adventure. When the reality of it hit them, and the talk was done they all backed out of doing the deed. Needless to say, when the rubber hits the road one knows who’s full of shit and who’s not. I don’t begrudge them a bit. Iraq is a very dangerous place, you are not around the ones you love, and the living conditions suck out loud. But Dan and I busted them in the balls anyway for good measure.

Prior to orientation they also sent a list of “things you will need”. 5 tubes of tooth paste, 10 pairs of blue jeans, 15 shirts, and the list goes on and on. We are talking about a LOT of stuff to be traveling with. But KBR has been doing LOGCAP for a number of years in the Balkans, so obviously they are in the know, right?