The Two-Headed Boy of Lebanon – John Previte

Written by John Previte during the PCVI Summer Writing Seminar ’20

Beirut is a beautiful city, a mixture of the new, the old, and the ancient. It has been referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East,” with beautiful beaches, modern hotels, universities, and businesses to support tourism. Cedar forests surround the city and lead to majestic mountains just an hour, or two, drive from the beaches. The great cedar forests are intertwined in Lebanon’s persona, and a single cedar tree is the centerpiece of the Lebanese flag. The mountains are home for skiing and other activities during the winter months. The neighboring city of Byblos has been continuously occupied for 7000 years; and considered one of the birthplaces of humanity. Life has endured throughout the cycles of violence in the country’s long history.

Beirut had been bombed, rocketed, and shelled. It was 1982, fighting had occurred in the streets with handheld weapons, grenades and improvised explosives. The children of Beirut had received an unfortunate first-hand education of war and its weaponry. Remnants of unexploded ordnance littered the city’s streets, much of it submunitions or small “bomblets” which were once encased in a rocket or shell. The submunitions are intended to increase the casualty count and damage by scattering these bomblets. The bomblets range in size and shape from that of a baseball to smaller configurations. Cluster bombs are designed not to have all of the munitions to explode immediately; the theory is that this will add to the body count when responders and reinforcements arrive hours and even days later. On occasion, children would throw cluster bomb’s submunitions at Marines. The children seemed immune to the danger and amused by our reactions to their actions.

The Marines and Sailors were sent to Beirut, as part of the United Nations Multinational Peacekeeping Mission; Lebanon was in yet another state of unrest and political upheaval. Civil war had been a regular event throughout the country’s history. Lebanon overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and borders Syria and Israel. Lebanon’s location is both strategic in the Middle East and also a hindrance to the country’s security. The region has had numerous conflicts throughout history, much of the turmoil focused on religion and religious beliefs.

As we drove through the streets of Beirut, it was difficult to find a building that was not scarred, pockmarked, or demolished by war. Streets were still covered with broken glass; shards of metal, and other reminders of what life once was like in this city. Buildings that housed businesses and families were now flattened. In some cases, the interior rooms were exposed, as the building’s façades were ripped away. In multi-level buildings, the second and the third floors were angled downward and now part of the first floor. Other buildings were pancaked, each floor of a high rise resting at street level, as if from a scene from a Roadrunner cartoon. Twisted iron rebar protruded exposed from the concrete that once encased it. This picture was repeated time and time again when you drove through the city. It seemed nothing was untouched by war.

On this near-perfect day in October, the Marines were resupplying the ground forces. The plan was for Sea Stallion and Sea Knight helicopters to drop equipment and food flown in from our ships to the basecamp and a location on the outskirts of the city. The Sea Stallion was a large, lumbering helicopter with a single large rotor overhead deemed the “the jolly green giant”. Sea Knight helicopters were long and lean in comparison and had twin rotor blades located at each end of the bird. Sleek Marine Corps Cobra gunships flew in air support of the operation.

The day was warm. A brilliant sun shined above, the breeze off of the Mediterranean kept us cool and refreshed. I was helping out in the field working as a radio operator, which meant I would carry a PRC-77 radio unit on my back. The radio unit was similar to what you would see when watching a military movie that takes place during Vietnam or Korea. The design was timeless and even mimicked the radios used during World War II with its long whip antenna.

My regular MOS, or Military Occupational Specialty, was that of a Communications Center Operator, a 2542. A Comm Center Operator works with classified and non-classified printed message traffic. During the early to mid-1980’s, the majority of the messages were transmitted and received via teletype using paper tape. The paper tape came in reels, about an inch in width. The tape was placed in a large teletype machine, a self-contained, bulky, gray metal desk-sized unit that included a keyboard, which at best resembled an awkward typewriter with cylindrical keys that were stiff to push, and not anything like the soft-touch keys of today’s computers or laptops. The unit also had a paper tape reader and a tape puncher, along with a paper document printer.  There is no screen to review what you are typing, nor an easy method to correct mistakes. Errors are corrected by running the tape through the reader. The reader converted the punched holes in the paper tape into letters, numerals, or other characters. The operator would stop, or attempt to stop, the tape’s progression just before the error. Simultaneously, the machine would be creating a new tape. Mistakes were common, frustrating and drove many a Marine or Sailor to drink, or at least question their chosen MOS. It may be inconceivable that the United States military relied on such an archaic manner of communication to send time-sensitive and secured data during operations or combat.

The technology was clumsy, awkward and impractical, but it worked and kept message traffic secure. I had worked with teletypes, in their various formats, in windowless communications centers on base at Camp Lejeune, aboard ships at sea, and with more transportable models in the field. Moving the portable models around was taxing work as the equipment combined with the crypto gear, which was needed to secure the message traffic, could weigh between one-hundred and two-hundred pounds. Each unit was contained in large, oversized crates that had unpadded steel handles awkwardly placed on the external case. The handles were placed in a manner that did not provide balance for those who carried the “portable” units. When carried, the units teetered back and forth, straining the muscles and especially the hands of the Marines carrying them. This strain on the body usually resulted in the shortening of tempers amongst those that carried the equipment in the field. This was just the teletypes. The required crypto gear was also heavy, unbalanced, and a bear to carry down a hallway let alone over uneven ground as the full weight of the case slapped at your legs.

Our job on this mission was to coordinate the “helo-drops” of equipment with command, an exercise to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of logistics. The majority of the supplies were in crates, encased in a spiderweb of cargo netting tethered by the helicopters from ship to shore. The cargo swung back and forth in the air, like a yoyo sways from the end of its string. This gear was dropped on site from the helicopters with precision and skill. Some crates had parachutes attached to them. The Marines on the ground were there to supply communication, coordination, provide security, to keep the civilians safe, and to reclaim the boxed items along with their valued parachutes.

We were trucked over in a small convoy through the now shadow of the once vibrant city. This part of the city resembled a dump. Everything that had been touched and ripped apart by war was carted to this location; bent girders, twisted steel, the debris from the buildings, household goods, and whatever other items that once comprised daily life in Lebanon.

When we arrived, our sergeant placed us in groups of two around, and inside, of this salvage yard of the refuse of war. We were surrounded by mounds of rubble. In some cases, we were dwarfed by some of these piles which partially blocked the sun and created shadows on this otherwise sun-drenched day. A surrealistic sculpture of cement, iron, tar, flattened furniture, crushed vehicles, glass, tires, rusting metal, splintered wood, and more items that the mind could not easily reconstruct into what the object’s intended purpose had been. Much of what had been Beirut now rested in heaps at this site.

The arrival of the Marines, the convoy, and buzz of the helicopters brought out the local people to see what the excitement was. We were instructed to keep the local people away from the drop zone, in an effort to keep everyone safe. The crowd grew. Excited, energetic children wanted to touch us, our gear and rifles. Others wanted something to eat or drink, we tended not to carry food. Occasionally, some of us carried circular candy bars, wrapped in silver foil. These chocolate bars were packed in a tin within our boxed C-rations; we referred to the candy bars as “shit disks” which were the only sweets we had while in the field and considered a needed treat. We offered the chocolate disks to children. During the early 1980s in the Marines, C-rations were being transitioned to MRE’s or Meals Ready to Eat. A somewhat healthier and more convenient food source for combatants in the field. C-rations required that every Marine carried a P-38 on the chain with their dog-tags. A P-38 or “John Wayne” is an ingenious invention. A small handheld hinged can opener with a curved sharp-edged cutter which is inserted into a can, the user would then manipulate the handle back-and-forth to open the cans to eat your meal. There were four cans of varying sizes to each meal, so it was a necessity to master this action to open the cans, or go hungry.

The crowd continued to gather. Many seemed to be looking for handouts and food. Beyond a few shit disks, we had nothing to give them. The crowd varied in age, but the majority was in their twenties, or younger. Their style of dress also varied greatly and often along what I deemed to be their religious beliefs. Some adult men seemed to be dressed for work in a professional setting wearing trousers and a jacket. Boys wore clothes that had seen better days, or perhaps were perfect to “play” in this dusty, dirty, makeshift dump turned playland. The few women that were present were dressed modestly, or in clothes that honored their religious beliefs. 

The crowd continued to swell, from which a man, in his late-twenties or early-thirties, emerged and challenged us to a fight. Mind you, we were “locked and loaded,” a term referring to being armed with M16-A1 rifles with loaded magazines. The man then posed in a manner that would conjure up an image of an old-time bare-knuckled boxer with bobbing fists out front and elbows pointing downward. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he see that we are armed?” Language was a huge barrier here, and I found it difficult to determine how hostile his intentions were. He quickly smiled, and slapped my shoulder in a friendly act, but still wanted to box one of us. When he saw that we were not going to take part in the sparring event, the man melted back into the crowd of people and I never did set my eyes on him again. 

The crowd grew. There were just the two of us in this area. A voice on the radio ordered “get the people back.”

“Back, back!” we yelled while motioning the crowd away from the drop zone. Some of the crowd moved back, many did not.

Children playfully mimicked our orders, and waved back at us. We again shouted our instructions. The children repeated our words. A couple of the children attempted to teach us what I assumed as “move back” in what was most likely in Arabic, or a dialect of it.

The crowd continued to grow to view the whirring helicopters as they dropped the off-white parachutes, and the attached crates. I realized the crowd may have wondered “What is in those crates?” Food? Clothing? Medicine? Was it for the people of Beirut, or not? As far as I knew, the crates may have only been empty containers for training purposes.

A voice came across the radio to “secure the area” and to “move the people back.” Again, we shouted out orders and motioned the crowd away from the excitement.

As Marines, we realized we were prized targets to some factions of combatants within Beirut. To kill, or capture a U.S. military member would be a coup for an emerging, or established radical group.

Our heads were on a swivel. We visually searched the crowd for weapons, or signs of pending trouble. We had to check the ground we walked on for unexploded ordnance, or planted bombs. The term IEDs or improvised explosive devices would later be popularized in the post 9/11 era. We had to continuously scan the crowd while attempting to keep the area clear.

I scanned the mounds of rubble; some people had gathered on the tops of these hills for a better view of the show. I looked up directly where the sun shined and saw a boy. I squinted and attempted to shade my eyes to get a better view of who was on the crest of the hills. He appeared to be slender, slightly hunched and… “What!” I thought, “am I seeing this right?” My attention was again committed to the crowd amongst us.

“Keep back!” we both yelled.

Again, I turned my head back to the boy on a mound of debris. I squinted and attempted to refocus. “Does that kid have two heads? He can’t! It must be the sun in my eyes, playing tricks with my mind.”

Again, I focused on the crowd. Some people kept their distance, others evaded us to get at what they thought would be valuable treasures in those crates.

“Back, back!” I yelled. This was met with the same mimics. The crowd’s angst grew; they wanted what was in those boxes along with the parachutes.

I searched for a better view of the boy on the hill of rubble. “That kid has two heads!” But, he can’t, it is not possible!  “Why isn’t anyone else astonished by this? Why am I the only one who thinks this is incredible?”

The crowd surged and demanded my immediate attention.

The voice over the radio says to “keep the crowd back, this is almost over!”

I am focused back on the crowd; tension mounted. The people wanted what they may think are humanitarian supplies meant for the citizens of this ravaged city.

I have to get a better view of the boy, but my attention needs to stay on the crowd.

“Where is that boy?”

The crowd seems to surge forward. We are beyond overwhelmed with the size of the gathering, we continue to monitor the group and stay alert for our own safety.

My eyes scanned for the boy. “Did he leave?” I needed a better view of him.

The radio crackled again. “The op is over.” “The helicopters are heading back to the ships.”

I searched for the boy, there he is!

The crowd seemingly understands that the excitement is over.  The crates and the parachutes were gathered up by the Marines and placed onto deuce-and-a-half cargo vehicles.

Over the radio, we hear “get to the trucks, we’re done.”

I have to get a better look at the boy. Where is he?

The crowd starts to thin out. Before they leave, children want to once again touch us, our gear, and the radio on my back. Some of the residents ask for food, or to drink from my canteen. We were directed not to drink the local water as the city’s water supply had been contaminated and deemed unfit to drink. We filled our canteens from “water buffaloes,” large, camouflaged, steel water tanks, fitted on a trailer and pulled by a cargo vehicle. The “buffaloes’ ‘ were filled aboard ship with desalinated water. The water was heavily chlorinated and had a strong, bleach-like taste, but was much safer to drink than the local water supply.  

“Where is the boy?”

The crowd is thinning out, somewhat demoralized, the excitement is over for today.

Marines are starting to filter back through the crowd with a sense of urgency. We want to get to the trucks and out of here.

“There’s the boy!”

The voice on the radio reminds us to get to the trucks on the double!

The boy is still on the pile of what was once Beirut. I do my best to shade my eyes. “He has two heads!” Why aren’t any of the locals amazed by this child? Was it that this boy was so well-known within the district and no longer a novelty?

Over the radio, “get to the trucks!” is heard. As friendly as the crowd has been, you did not want to “let down your guard”, or be separated from your unit; it was time to go.  Someone may have yelled my name and to “get moving” but I could not be sure.

I have to get closer to the boy. I need to get a better look at him. He is still here. I look for a passable pathway, or climbable part of the hill of what was. Time is of the essence. I climb up a steep pile of concrete and rebar and reach the top with my radio on my back. Under the radio I am awkwardly wearing an extra-large Vietnam-era flak vest. My rifle is slung over my shoulder. I wore a camouflaged helmet which was cocked back on my head as I ascended up the rubble.

I finally see the boy, he turns toward me.

The anticipation is over. My heart sinks. My stomach sours and turns. My breathing became uneven and erratic.

A boy of maybe twelve stands before me. He is lean, solemn, and in a ragged state of dress, but a normal, healthy, boy. He reminds me of my own brother, who is safe and back home in Rhode Island. On this boy’s back, in a makeshift harness, was another boy, slightly younger, smaller, and bearing the abuses of war.

The smaller boy’s head and face were pockmarked and scarred like the Lebanese landscape. His head appeared dented in places, and was no longer symmetrical. This boy had a distant look in his eyes and did not focus on, nor pay attention to anyone, or the events of the day. His trauma was severe. This small boy had no legs. With the sun behind them, it was his head that gave the appearance of the healthier boy having two heads. This was clear to me now. I could see this smaller boy had no right arm. I surmised he lost his limbs from an explosion, or maybe he was rescued from one of those crushed buildings?

I felt sick. Breathing seemed like a chore and no longer natural.

Who took care of him? Were there adequate facilities and services to help this boy in this war-ravaged land? Who provided for the older boy? Did they have family? A safe place to sleep? Food and water? What type of quality of life could that young boy expect?

The radio thankfully broke the silence; and put my thoughts to rest. I needed to move and to get out of this place.

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