Tuesday, February 01, 2005

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THE SOLDIER'S MISTRESS

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From Fallujah to Jessie and back again, with a sister beside him-- and beside herself (originally published here)...

Dane Street has a recurring nightmare, and he has it almost every night. In it, he’s a soldier running through a palm grove, trapped in a fierce ambush:

“Taking fire, running behind the machine gunners, and a buddy of mine gets shot.” A bullet cuts through his friend’s Kevlar vest, into his shoulder and out his back. And Dane can’t rescue him, can’t reach him. “It’s in slow motion, and I see him getting shot. Trying to scream for help, but I can’t.”

In another nightmare he keeps having, Dane is riding a Humvee in the dead of night, exposed in its turret with the desert wind blowing in his face, when bright tracer rounds begin to fly past him. And then the bullets start coming closer. “A few whiz by my head,” he says.

These are recurring nightmares Dane Street has because, he tells me, they actually happened to him. A fellow serviceman was indeed shot through his body armor, and Dane really couldn’t get to him. (Their corpsman could, however, and dragged him to safety. “Very lucky to be alive, actually,” Dane notes.) The second incident happened to Dane less than a month before he was due to leave Iraq, last year.

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“This was right after four of our snipers got killed and [their] weapons were stolen,” he says. “They said it was professionally done [by] more than one insurgent. It was only a mile away from where I was on my post... all four at the same time, [by] handgun.

“So,” Dane continues, “I’m thinking they’re shooting at me with [American] sniper rifles.” And unlike most homegrown Iraqi insurgents, these snipers were good shots. “We believe foreign [fighters from] Syria. They picked off officers and higher ranking billets.”

I’m sitting with Dane in my Second Life office in Shipley (this is last fall) which is where he’s telling me of the things that happened to him a few months ago, when he was overseas. He’s tall and slender, with fine features, and dark, close-cropped hair. Behind him, while we talk, the sun gets lost in the horizon, supplanted by the rising moon.

I’m wondering about the recurring memory where his friend was shot. “Weird you keep having this dream,” I say, “when the guy is safe and on the mend.”

“Don’t know,” Dane replies, laughing. “Can’t control it.” As for that time in the Humvee, he speculates, “I think about it a lot, because I was so close to coming home and that was the closest I came to death.”

As it happens, Second Life is also the place where Dane Street first told his real life sister about these nightmares that he keeps having.

At a family reunion which welcomed him back from Iraq, Mistress Midnight showed her brother this online world where she’s become a fashion maven and a celebrity of sorts. Dane was intrigued enough so that when he was transferred to a West Coast military base, she bought him an account of his own, and a computer to run it on. Which is where he went in-world, along with a fellow serviceman who has an account of his own.

“Me and a buddy of mine five rooms down from me have a little Photoshop experience,” he says, “and my sister said she’d be more than happy to let us build a shop on her land.” So off-duty, they began building the shop in Midnight City, the high-end fashion mall she owns in Umber.

Dane’s barracks, however, is located in a barren, sun-baked part of the US-- ironic, considering where he just came from. (“Must have done something horrible in my [past] life to deserve it,” he says wryly.)

And though he’s safe for now in the States, he’s still jumpy, still having these recurring images that are like waking nightmares.

As I talk with Dane from the balcony of my office, I send concurrent IMs to Mistress Midnight, so she knows I’m speaking with him.

“No interrogating my brother!” she commands.  “I mean, just be nice.”

I ask her if having him here in Second Life has helped at all, getting him to open up. 

“Yes,” Mistress tells me. “Well, it’s easier for him to talk to me here, and not have to deal with me stressed out and crying to his face. But I need to know this stuff. Anything with close calls, anything with lasting imprints. I think he shields a lot of that from me. I have a hard time dealing with my baby brother being in danger.”

“What kind of stuff has you told you about in Second Life, that he didn't tell you in person?”

“Just about his nightmares, I’m sure he's told you.  Just stuff like that.”

Back at my office, I ask Dane where he was stationed.

“In Iraq? Fallujah, from January to late July. We were actually the ones who took over the city, and met the mayor and s***.”

When he says Fallujah, I also say that last word, appropriately coupled to “holy”.

“[This is] after the contractors got strung up?” I ask him.

“Yes, I believe so. We weren’t allowed to watch news... still don’t watch a lot of news,” he adds. “I don’t want to hear anymore about it. Some people have opinions, reasons for being over there. That I don’t agree with. Just unneeded stress.” Dane says he actually didn’t support the US-led invasion of Saddam’s Iraq, before it happened, but having been there, does so now.

“Seeing that we are actually helping the Iraqi people,” he says. “Mostly the children-- future of Iraq. Soooo glad and happy to see us. And plus, if we leave now, that country is screwed.”

“He doesn’t sleep like he should,” Mistress is telling me by IM. “Or at all. And he breaks down sometimes when he doesn’t think we know. He went out with my [real life] husband Dragen Zaius, who plays also, and they all went for drinks, and he's just a different man. Not the kid I left when I moved out. His eyes are older. Like he lived and died with some of his fallen friends.”

I ask Dane why he joined the armed forces.

“Honestly, to make my family proud… just wanted to do something with my life and travel,” he says. “Sorta makes you grow up fast, dealing with so many stressful situations, one after another, and not being able to avoid it, but deal with it.”

“When he left for boot camp,” Mistress Midnight continues, “I knew he'd be sent to Iraq. My other little brother who’s eleven now and I were both crying at night-- we all knew where he'd end up.”

“Our mission was to take over the city,” Dane continues. “After that they started with the raids... I went on a few.” I ask him what that’s like, and he laughs. “Awesome. Nothing like kicking down someone’s door [at] 4AM.”

“What if it's some innocent family got the wrong address, though?”

“Well our intel was always on the money,” Dane replies. This was during the first, aborted siege of Fallujah, after the Coalition had warned all civilians to clear the streets. “We had the whole city quarantined. No one enters.” Still, he says, “There was a lot of civilian casualties. But like I said, they all had warnings. Our rules of engagement were anyone male, military age outside their house after 1900 was to be killed. And I guess they didn’t think we were serious.

“For the most part we took prisoners,” he clarifies, “but when we suspected they had weapons... or when they were suspicious, running around and s***, that’s when we took them out.”

Doing that, he says, one’s mind “kinda shuts down. Goes into survival mode. Sorta [feel] a hatred toward them... I like to tell myself that, you know, he didn’t have a gun but he was probably on his way to get one. Or he had a gun earlier. You know, kinda hard to explain. Just try not to think about it.”

“I hate that the person he used to be is gone forever,” Mistress Midnight is telling me in IM. “The innocence, I guess, that you can never get back. When he was still in junior high, he was always a joker, messed with people, and now he's a man. Just totally different. He's still him, but it’s like now he holds something back from people.”

After awhile, Dane says me he doesn’t want to talk about what he saw in Iraq anymore. “Sounds like you've seen some pretty harsh stuff if you don't wanna talk about it,” I observe.

“Yeah,” he allows, “got pretty crazy. But when is war ever pretty? People die in war... [I] try not to think about death, period. Blissful ignorance.”

But even back in the States, as he tells it, keeping in that state isn’t always possible.

“We were at a club. Went outside to smoke, me and two buddies. This was right after we got back that weekend.” Someone discerned they were active duty military by their haircuts, and angrily confronted them. “Asked us if we killed people. Then proceeded to call us babykillers. And started getting political. Just was a mess. We left.”

I observe that it’s interesting someone would call him a vicious psychopath to his face. “[I]f the guy really thought you were a babykiller,” I point out, “he wouldn't call you those names.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” says Dane, “if we were drunk we probably would waited for him outside. But been through enough fighting in Iraq. It was time to have a good time.”

As the conversation on the war in Iraq winds down, I impulsively invite him to tour our own war zone, in Jessie. At the time of our talk, a group of dedicated wargamers had converted the damage-enabled “free fire” area into a Western European town, circa World War II.

The WWIIOLers, they're called,” I tell Dane. “A lot of them are [real life] vets. From the [American] South, too, so you'll see a lot of Confederate flags.”

Dane laughs, glancing around.  “Yeah, I saw.”

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But when we arrive, the only person in Jessie is an old bald dwarf in stockings and high heels.

“I just want to dance,” Jackee Satyr announces. To prove his point, he performs a minuet on top of an arch draped with German flags.

I ask Jackee where all the other WWIIOLers went. 

“I think they got bored,” he says, and returns to his ballet steps.

“Anyway, Dane,” I continue, “if you feel like fragging, Jessie's the place to go.”

A guy in a Counterstrike-style commando outfit appears from nowhere, and joins us on the arch. 

“Yes,” Myztikal Madison warns Dane, “but you frag, you will most likely get killed.  Very skilled shooters here.”

“Myztikal”, I say, “Dane was just in Iraq.”

By this time, Mistress Midnight has teleported over to Jessie, and leaps onto the arch, to stand by her brother.

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“Yeah,” she says, “Dane's a REAL shooter.  Ain't 'fraid o’ no pixels.”

Jackee Satyr stops his dancing, and looks up at Dane in a new light. 

“Thank you for your service,” he says.

“You’re welcome,” says Dane. He looks around at the combat theater. “Soooo, how does this work? Just go around shootin’ people?”

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“Well. It sounds so simple, until politics get involved,” Jackee cautions. (He’s changed from his naughty Catholic schoolgirl outfit into something more appropriate to the setting, so he now looks like a midget Axis officer.) “Like for instance. Shooting me would be bad.”

Dane Street laughs.  “This isn’t some family feud I’m gonna get stuck in, is it?”

“Yes. The residents of Jessie have a sort of ceasefire thing going. Only because it is annoying trying to get things done and getting spawn camped. I don’t play politics. I have fun. So by all means shoot me. But like I said, if you come in to Jessie guns a blazing, prepare to get blacklisted.”

This isn’t anything like the crazed anarchy I came to know and love. “Jeez,” I say, frankly a bit disappointed. “You guys got all civilized.”

“Dont f***-ing blame me,” the midget commandant growls.  “If it was up to me all y'all would be dead.”

“Jessie used to be the Fallujah of Second Life, so to speak,” I tell Dane, feeling somewhat lame to make the comparison. (Though in retrospect, I wonder how off it really is.)

“Now it's Candy Land ™ with the cannon from Monopoly™ in the wrong box,” Mistress says.

At the base of the arch, Dane is displaying some photographs depicting him and some of his serviceman buddies, many from the base camp near Fallujah. He’s very young, but unlike his avatar, he’s a ruddy, beefy guy with broad shoulders and a slim waist, and it looks like he could punch through the world.

“That’s my hero,” Mistress tells me, smiling broadly. In one shot, he’s chomping on a cigar. “He has smoking amnesty from me while he's serving,” she adds. “After that I’m buyin’ him the patch.”

By this time, Mistress’ friend Aimee Weber has joined us in Jesse.

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"Hamlet, if you're writing an expose about Dane being a baby killer or something," Aimee warns, “I will be very irritated." She proceeds to extol Dane Street's intelligence, artistic talent, and kindness. Since Mistress introduced them, Dane and Aimee have become fast in-world friends, and this unlikely coming together is a unique story in itself-- Dane the battle-hardened grunt from the deep South, Aimee the East Coast art student from one of the bluest cities in one of the bluest states. Not from a neighborhood with much hawkish sentiment, in other words-- but then, to the extent it has a political opinion, neither does Second Life's community, for the most part.

“I believe he is there for a reason,” Mistress Midnight tells me.

“There's a fair amount of anti-war folks in here,” I point out.

Mistress smiles wanly. “I know. And they know who not to preach to. There have been open discussions before, back when I was in Nexcorp.”  She chuckles.  “Nothing was destroyed over it, but people with such differing views know when there’s no point in arguing.”

Aimee is peering at a picture of Dane posing with his khaki-clad buddies. ‘Notice Dane makes the other guys look like girlie men?” She says. “Dane has the James Dean thing going.”

Myztikal Madison, the Counterstrike commando, seems more impressed by the photo of Dane holding a commandeered AK-47. 

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“Thanks for your service,” he begins.

“Thanks for your support,” says Dane.

“Iraqi soldiers mostly carry those, right?  Cheap good gun.”

“Not necessarily good,” Dane replies, “but reliable.  Dump it in sand and fire it, no problem.  But not very accurate.”

Mistress Midnight seems more interested in the sandy background and the sunlight flooding behind him. “Stupid hot Iraq,” she says, frowning.

“Your sister worries about you,” I tell Dane Street earlier.

“I know she does. She’s an awesome sister, love her to death. Always been there for me.” In-world, he says he’s doesn’t talk much with her about his experiences in-country. “She just helps me with things in SL, like textures, templates, Photoshop™ questions.” He laughs. “Women.”

“He came up to me last night [in Second Life] and told me he didn’t want me to worry about him,” Mistress Midnight tells me.

“How'd you feel when he was actually in Iraq?”

“Sad, worried, proud.  Oceans of emotions.  I cry.  I’m a wuss.”

And as was said from the beginning, all of this happened last fall. Earlier this month, as scheduled, Dane Street was shipped back to Iraq, for another year of service. There was of course another tearful departure, between brother and sister. A bit before he left, he sent an IM to Aimee Weber, to tell her about one of the days he had, just before his ship date.

“It was actually heart breaking,” Aimee says. “He was vacationing on a beach. And apparently he saw a lot of ‘perfect’ women. The Californian chickies getting their boobs all done.” She makes a sad face-- and then a happy one. “And he said it made him think of ME... 'cause I am real. Which may be the sweetest thing anybody could say.”

And a couple weeks ago, I finally got my own message from Dane Street, to some follow-up questions to our original interview, which I’d e-mailed him a few months ago. He wished me a Happy New Year, then told me he’d try to get to my questions-- but he was in Iraq right now, and so his Internet access was infrequent.

Mistress Midnight hasn’t heard from Dane in recent days – not after the recent chopper crash last week, which killed several dozen US service personnel, or even after last weekend's Iraqi elections, the defense of which killed a handful more.

“I called my parents again,” Mistress tells me. “Still no word. I've heard nothing, but my husband is logic-ing me out of worrying. Says he was in a different spot [than the chopper crash.] And I would have heard already.” She means the knock on the door from a somber officer, which every family member with someone serving abroad fears.

So for now, she waits to hear from him. Meanwhile, she's built a small donation box to him in Midnight City (Umber/100/127). The Linden Dollars contributed to it will go directly to finance and ship gifts out to Dane and his buddies, the notecard promises. It’s black and gold, with a yellow ribbon floating above it.

“I want everything in the world for him, and happiness,” Mistress Midnight tells me. “He’s just incredibly smart, an amazing artist, and handsome boy. I guess I would like to think of him happy, rich in a mansion somewhere on a beach, and anything that shows me it’s not so, just breaks my heart.”

Updated here. - HL, 3/8/05

 

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