Portraits and Rambling at Panther Ramp

I am having my portrait professionally done today. The gentleman sits in his chair while I stand in front of him, patiently waiting for his masterpiece to be complete. He glances up at me every few seconds, ensuring he has the angles right, comparing my face to the one he is sketching on his white canvas. We pass several minutes this way, neither of us speaking, both too entranced by what is taking form beneath the careful strokes of his pen. The sun rises as I wait, its rays slowly warming the mountains that separate Kandahar from Pakistan.

Except, the gentleman isn’t quite a gentleman, he’s Ski. Mokwinski, actually, one of the guards that I work with here. The white canvas is a to-go tray from the dining facility. The pen is a dusty, half-empty tool that has passed from hand to hand at this entry control point for who knows how long. The glances he gives me are full of mischief and his eyes glitter with amusement as he works on his piece. At last he shows it to me, proudly turning the to-go box full of his half-eaten breakfast toward me with a wide grin. And I laugh, because it is perfect, right down to the shaka sign I give to cars when they are clear to go through the entry control point.

Ski and I have been out here since 0530. Our shift usually starts at 0900, but out here at Panther Ramp we start three hours early and get off at noon. It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the cold and the fact that I’m writing this on a pad of paper because we’re not allowed to have electronics on the flightline. The shack we’re sitting in runs off a generator that roars almost as loudly as the planes that fly over our heads. The up-armored door sticks in its tracks, trapping me inside when I try to check a vehicle. I lean my head out the door and the good-hearted soldier driving a van full of local nationals brings me her ID so I can check to make sure she’s allowed to be here. She smiles and says, “No worries, hon,” as she heads back to her car. Ski laughs and it takes the both of us to push the heavy door back into place to block out the freezing wind.

Ski has a reckless, confident way about him that is instantly endearing. He’s quick with comebacks but, somehow, he manages to deliver them in such a way that they never seem as harsh as they should. Out of everyone here, he’s the only one who knows my biggest secret. He’s working on his own book, just as I am. We bonded over our love of creating and our ability to fire ideas back and forth, not to mention our occasional porta-john revelations. This morning is our first time working together in at least three weeks and so we’ve filled our morning with rapid, meandering conversations about everything that has happened to us in the weeks since we last had a meaningful chat. And now I have something to remember today. I cut it out of the tray with the tip of my pen, careful not to damage it. Here it is, in all its glory:

Oscar the Therapy Spider approves.
Artwork by Andrew Mokwinski

This is a silly drawing. But it’s more than that. It’s not the first thing Ski has drawn me. One dull day at Kilo ECP, he drew me a beautiful flower on the top of my to-go tray; the same kind of flower he drew in the dust on the shack’s window just this morning. I cut the sketch free from the rest of the Styrofoam and I’ve used it for weeks as a bookmark. It warms my heart because even in the early morning hours, in the biting cold, with the door sticking shut every five seconds and with the Air Force flightline supervisors breathing down our necks trying to find ways to slam us with a non-compliance, people like Ski are here. They’re here living their lives with a smile on their face and kindness in their hearts.

Artwork by Andrew Mokwinksi

Don’t anyone show this to Ski. I would never live it down.

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