Six years ago today, my sweetie, Marlene, drove me to CFB Petawawa for deployment to Afghanistan. That’s when the story “A Song is Worth a Thousand Words,” was born. To mark that occasion as well as celebrate the release of Firefight, I thought I’d share that story with you here as well:
It’s funny how something as simple as a song can bring back memories in an avalanche of images, sounds, and smells. It’s probably why everyone likes one kind of music or another. There are certain things that are universal. We love. We fear. We eat, sleep, dream, make love. And we make music.
When you come across that special song, the one you know you will never forget, it literally sings to a place deep in your heart. For me, that song is, “Suds in the Bucket.”
It’s about a girl who runs off with the man she loves. It’s a sweet and silly song, full of countrified angst and the folly of youthful rebellion. Shocked parents find their pony-tailed girl has grown up to be a young woman and taken off to Vegas with her “prince in a white pickup truck.” She leaves “the suds in the bucket and the clothes hangin’ out on the line.” The hearts of her mom and dad are broken while their little girl’s heart is just beginning to bloom.
We played this song as I was heading up Highway 41 with my fiancé Marlene on the tail end of a five-hour drive. She was dropping me off at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Petawawa where I was set to deploy for my ten-month tour in Afghanistan. Marlene and I were both nervous about being apart and about the mortal dangers I would be facing.
This was not a business trip. There would be no briefcase and no taxi waiting to take me to a conference at the Hilton near the airport. I was about to embark on a mission into some of the roughest, most hostile territory in the world. I would be in the line of fire to help a country in crisis.
My sweetheart and I drove in silence at first, listening to the wheels on the road and the easy hum of the engine as the car took us closer and closer to the spot where we might be saying our last goodbye.
It was a sunny day, that kind of day where you wish you could just pull off to the side of the road, stop and do nothing except listen to your tunes, hold hands with your girl, and enjoy living in the moment. However, real life has a way of intruding on those kinds of fantasies, so I had to be content with cruising along with the windows down and the steady beat of the wind breezing through the car.
Marlene and I made small talk. I commented on the motorcycles we saw zipping along the highway, about how I might deck this one out or add some chrome to that one. I have always loved bikes and was excited at the sight of them out on the open road, thundering along like chrome and steel horses. It tugged at something adventurous and free-spirited in the core of my being.
Marlene likes bikes too, but that afternoon, she mostly talked about the way the sunlight hit the trees and made the leaves glitter like diamonds. I saw that she was right, and the fact that there was so much beauty – natural and man-made – all around us made us appreciate all that I would be leaving behind.
We chit-chatted and reminisced about the times we had spent together. We did not talk about my deployment or the tough job I would face once I landed in Afghanistan. Nor did we speak about how often we would write or call. We definitely did not talk about the possibility that I might be coming back changed, or not at all.
We were partners in the truest sense, connected by a common past and a shared sense of both hope and fear about the future. To try to set up some kind of artificial connection with scripted words between us would have been pointless.
The car stereo had been keeping us company during our silences. Then Marlene inserted the Sara Evans Restless CD and pressed play. When “Suds in the Bucket” came on, Marlene laughed and cranked the volume.
“I love this song!” she squealed.
Not that her favourite song had been a secret or anything. Anyone who knew Marlene was aware of her soft spot for Sara Evans.
The first notes of the song filled the car like helium – making us both giddy and lightheaded – and it suddenly felt more like we were flying than driving. We laughed and sang along together.
When the tune ended, she replayed it and we listened to it again several times. Each time the song ended, Marlene hit replay and we laughed and sang along like it was just the first time. Marlene tapped the steering wheel in sync with the steel guitar and I tapped out the beat on the leather armrest between us.
As we approached Petawawa, we listened to that song together for what we knew would be the last time in a long while. This time we did not sing along and we did not laugh. We just held hands and let the music and lyrics wash over us like rain.
Marlene stopped the car in the parking lot and I could see that her chin was quivering. She turned her head a little to the left and I knew she was crying. I could not blame her. I was looking forward to serving my country, but this separation was going to be hard.
I told Marlene, “I’m just going to war. I’m not going away.” I held her face in my hands and pressed my forehead to hers. “I’ll never leave you and hey, while I’m over there, I’ll be singing along with you the whole time.”
We kissed and held each other close. Every time one of us made a motion to move apart, the other took it as a sign to hang on tighter.
Finally we could not prolong it any longer. It was time for me to head overseas. We got out of the car and began the long walk across the lot to the army base’s registration office. The music played in our hearts as we said goodbye.
A few weeks later, I had forgotten about “Suds in the Bucket,” though never about Marlene. I had been busy getting acclimatized to being in a warzone in the middle of the desert a long way from home.
When I had first landed at Kandahar Airfield, the sirens, people rushing around everywhere and the intense heat were startling. The first thing I saw was four Dutch soldiers loading body bags into a light-armoured vehicle – an unnerving scene that felt like it had been taken right from the movie Platoon.
It did not take long, however, to become immersed in life on the base. I had settled into the barracks and began preparing to go “outside the wire.” My days were filled with security briefings, orientation training, weapon readiness, and handover sessions with the PSYOPS specialist I would be replacing. There was no time left to feel homesick.
Then before I knew it, I was getting ready for my first mission. I found myself at New Canada House, a kind of recreation hall on the main base where Canadian troops could relax, watch television and unwind between missions. I was sitting outside at a wooden picnic table, mentally preparing for my upcoming assignment – a four-week stint at the Governor’s Palace in Kandahar City.
As I sat and listened to the music being piped outside through two large speakers, I began thinking about what was ahead of me as well as what I had left behind. I was excited, yet nervous, as I had been hearing stories all week about the high risk of kidnappings, ambushes, and suicide attacks in and around the exact area I had been assigned to patrol.
Later on in my tour, after many near misses and months of constant exposure to mortal danger, I would start to develop a kind of mental toughness that carried me through the most dangerous circumstances. These were still early days, though, so the prospect of diving headfirst into one of the most perilous warzones on earth was giving me the shakes.
A driver had been assigned to pick me up at a small hill near New Canada House and drive me to the airfield. When the jeep arrived, I stood up and began to slowly approach it. That’s when I heard it. Our song had started to play on the loud speakers. It was Sara Evans with that smooth southern drawl singing “Suds in the Bucket.”
I laughed at the timing and held up a finger to my driver, saying, “Just a minute.” Then I sat back down.
As the song played, my memories of Marlene and the love we share instantly replaced all my fears of the danger that lay in front of me. I knew her love would carry me through whatever this hostile country had to offer. Some people come back from combat for rest. Some come back to heal. Some come back for glory. I would be coming back for Marlene. Like Sara Evans says, “You can’t fence time, and you can’t stop love.”
A song is worth a thousand words is an excerpt from Firefight © 2014 By Rick Kurelo, CD.
You can also ask your local Canadian or international bookseller.
Photo: Rick Kurelo on mounted patrol near FOB Wilson, Zhari District, Afghanistan, 2008.