RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

The Brevity of Sensation…

Way, way back, when I was first told I was going to Afghan, I put a list together of gear and kit that I thought I would need to take with me…and eventually got around to getting.

I took a LOT of kit with me out there.  A lot. Far more than I needed.  It was nice stuff to have but it wasn’t essential.  I ended up with a couple of bags worth that I just didn’t use. A couple of tee shirts, ditto pairs of shorts, gym stuff. about three pairs of socks, a couple of pairs of bomb-pants, two pairs of trousers and two shirts to wear under my body armour.  I eventually just packed the rest of my gear away in preparation for coming home! Proof that you don’t need a lot of stuff out there – just good admin so that you wash your dirty gear as soon as you get in from a patrol and you are sorted.

But when it came to tech gear – and as a fully functioning gadget geek I love my tech gear – well, the same was true! I ended up with having far more stuff than I needed.  There were a few essentials.  My camera.  My iPod.  My netbook laptop.  The rest…Well it was nice to have in a box by my bed, but it wasn’t essential.  I only used my PowerMonkey Solar Charger a couple of times when I was on Op Omid Haft (to keep my iPod charged) and the rest…the Gorillapod – nope. The Pebble battery pack? Nada. Even my Kindle went through periods of use and neglect.  The helmet cam the RAF gave me was in my day-sack and used on patrols but the footage was, to be honest, pretty dull – at best.

But the fact was, and is, that I’d have gone bonkers without my iPod.  If I was packing to go anywhere for a couple of days, then pretty much the first thing I’d pack would be my iPod.  Regular readers will know that music is a big thing in my life and it is the one thing that does keep me sane.  It did keep me sane. It was (in the words of Peter Sarstedt) where I went to when I was alone in my head.  It took me out of where I was, and took me to a better place.  And although I had a huge amount of music out there to draw on, the music I listened to got less and less. I would enjoy sitting outside my tent and listening to ‘Songs for Dirty Lovers’ by The National, or drift of to sleep to Sigur Ros and their crazy, but beautiful vocalisations and Icelandic music of Ágætis Byrjun…and then find beauty in a Natalie Merchant song.

But it was just one song by Maximo Park that will forever remind me of Afghanistan.  Songs stay with me for reasons best known to their own.  They have a life of their own and they sometimes seem to squeeze their way into your life almost by accident and then stick there.  One afternoon I was in the gym and Maximo were playing on my iPod.  And this one song came on.  And as I said, for no good reason other than the sound of it and the feel of it at a time when I needed to hear a song – not just listen to it…it made me feel…alive.  It made me float and fly.  For once it’s not some ballad, it’s a rock and roll song.  It’s called ‘Sandblasted and Set Free’. The title line in the chorus ‘Sandblasted and set free’ just pretty much described the feel of being out there.

Free? Yeah. Free. I actually felt I was free and was ‘living’ out there.  Back home at times we go through the motions.  But out there you don’t.  You are not in some sort of limbo where you are spending your time waiting for the next thing to happen.  Not are marking time.  Not just going through the motions; but actually living.  As I said in an earlier blog – when you are being shot at you know you are living.

This is the ‘brevity of sensation’ that is mentioned in the song.  I guess this is why the song spoke to me.  Here’s a lyric that means at once nothing, and yet means everything.  Even though it was scary, going out there and patrolling, it was something that I have always wanted to do. I was glad to do it and I will miss it. It’s a simpler life and simpler existence.  You just get on and do stuff. You don’t need a lot to do it.  All the background crap of our lives is forgotten and you concentrate on just two important things – staying safe and keeping your mates safe.  You need to be safe so you can get home to the people that matter most of all.

Victor Frankl wrote about his time in Nazi Concentration Camps.  He learnt there that to get him through the hell he needed to have a reason; a purpose.  And his purpose was to get out of it and survive for his wife.  The love of his wife was the driver for him.  And although my experience wasn’t anything like his, I could identify.  You need a purpose. A reason.  And for me, it was to see as much as I could, to do as much as I could and then to bring all that home with me to my family.  I was selfish to want to go out there but I wanted to bring all that back with me.  To come home and get on with the rest of my life with the experience of it all locked away for when I need it to make me a better person.  I wanted to do my bit and make the world a better place and be able to hold my head up and I wanted my family to be proud.  It wasn’t about getting stuff. It wasn’t about having things, or getting things.  It was about living, it was about experiencing, and it was about coming home with it all.

You can get by on the minimum amount of stuff.  As long as you all get back ok at the end of a patrol then the world is good.  But the feeling of going out.  Of the adrenaline, of the anticipation.  Of the feeling of testing yourself, pushing yourself.  It is a whole different thing that I had not anticipated or expected.  It cuts through what you thought was important before – and simplifies life quite beautifully.

We are almost programmed by our society – I know I was – to want stuff to make my life better.  But I learnt, out there, that you don’t actually need a lot of stuff.  I have pictures and momento’s of my time.  But these are just more things.  But I don’t need them.  Every time I will hear that song – ‘Sunbasted and set free’ it will remind me of Afghan.  You don’t really need stuff about you.  You don’t really need gadgets and gear.  You don’t need stuff to clutter up your life.  You don’t really need a lot at all.

Just a few things will do you right. As long as they are the right things.

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8 thoughts on “The Brevity of Sensation…

  1. Mrs Rural on said:

    Loved this blog – so true. I love how a song can take you right back to a memory, in an instant. We have far too much clutter & ‘stuff’ in our lives & it can only be put into perspective once we experience the ‘testing’ times. Well done!

  2. Lynn Parker on said:

    Hello RAFAirman, What a total gem you are – your blogs are an utter blessing to read and make me feel deeply humbled for all that you all over there put up with to keep us all safe here. And I am happy that the realisation that living a simple life without much stuff is one of those happy things that occurs to you as a result of being out there serving your country. So kudos to you for being there, for taking the time to write, to honour all those for whom it is the ultimate sacrifice and for being away from your family and friends for yonks on end. May large drinks be awaiting you on your return and keep safe in the meantime. x

  3. that made me smile, as i have just sent my ipod to a friend who has just deployed for a year in afghan. i hope there is some music on there that he likes.

    you have made me feel like i have done something useful for him! thanks.

    keep safe.

  4. Music has a strange grip on the soul. Feeding it. Keeping you alive.
    The Scouting for Girls track “I need a holiday” is most suitable for us non service followers.
    “…They work me like a dog and the money’s bad…” always brings a smile to my face. Even though (if my boss is reading this) I’m doing okay.

    There is one track that really gets me Mike and the Mechanics Living Years. It helped me mourn the loss of my father but it is now a celebration of father hood.

  5. Kerry Maria Lawson on said:

    Great Blog Alex, Music is one of the best healers & mood enhancers ever. Takes u back 2that place each time. Can b sad too. X

  6. Although from a military point of view I’ve not done more than a few months in the TA, I have previously worked overseas for three years as a mountain bike guide.

    What’s a little crazy (or not, as the case may be) is several things you talk about struck a cord with my time abroad.

    I was living in different places with some very different cultures (and living somewhere is very different to visiting, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you) and, despite doing something I loved, did miss home. I missed weddings, births, and christenings. Bizarrely I missed the Queen Mum dying.

    Not needing masses of kit – just useful and well thought out – which must include music for ‘downtime’ is also very true of my experience.

    The living in the moment – I was never under fire (thank God. But then a friend did have a round whine past his head when a native policeman fired a warning shot at a fleeing smalltime crook) but was out everyday doing something ‘adventurous’, and everyday was different. And time definitely seemed to pass far more slowly because there was only ‘now’.

    What I found the strangest though was the sensation on returning home of being bombarded by information. Billboards and TVs telling me how much I needed new kit. I remember wandering round Tesco in Colchester when a friend called and asked what I was doing. I explained that I was in Tesco, just looking at all the produce we have available to us in the UK. I’d just got back from six months in the West Indies, living in a hut on stilts.

    “It’s a simpler life and simpler existence. You just get on and do stuff. You don’t need a lot to do it. All the background crap of our lives is forgotten…”

    Yeap, totally.

    Thanks for the fantastic blog!

  7. Thanks Alex, Good Blog, Good Points, and filled with truths. I am retired now and my list of need and want has become very simple. You are on the button, no mistake. Thanks.

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