This is Part 2 of a four-part series: They Don't Have Tacos In the Suck, which chronicles an afternoon taco truck crawl with my best friend from college, an Air Force EOD sergeant whom I hadn't seen in 10 years. Read the first part here.
Tacos Arcelia has two things going for it: The first thing is the 99-cent tacos that it advertises in bold black letters on the side of its second thing, a school bus that's been painted bright red and silver. There was already a line forming around noon on Thursday, so Ryan and I figured it was a sure bet.
We ordered a taco each -- lengua for me, chicharrones for him -- and stepped back to await our orders. Even working in the larger-than-average confines of a school bus, the crew was moving at a slow clip.
"You know that part in Black Hawk Down where an RPG gets lodged in a guy's chest but it doesn't go off?" asked Ryan idly while we waited.
"Uh, yeah. Although I hadn't thought of that movie -- or that scene in years." I didn't ask why he asked me, wary of the answer. He told me anyway.
"That really happens."
I thought back to the time when Ryan and I were making dinner at his apartment one night, both 18 years old, and I'd stupidly thrown a handful of frozen okra into a deep pan of hot grease to fry not knowing any better. I started a minor grease fire which we quickly put out, but my face and hands were pockmarked with grease burns that took a few years to fade. The burns hurt terribly and I avoided frying anything at all for at least another five years, scared to death by such a minor injury.
"Have you considered moving out of EOD?" I asked finally. "I know there are other areas of the Air Force you could go into," I added with a little laugh, hoping he wouldn't be offended by the suggestion that he leave an area which poses clear and constant danger to his life every single day that he's on duty.
"No way," Ryan replied. "If I stick it out another 10 years, I can retire on a full pension. Retired at 42. Can you imagine?"
I chuckled. "No, I definitely can't." Just then, our orders came up.
The corn tortillas were listless and anemic-looking, a pale color that was closer in hue to flour tortillas. My pile of diced lengua was equally pallid, and a bite of the tongue confirmed that it tasted as bland as it looked.
Ryan's taco, on the other hand, was filled with more vibrant-looking pieces of chicharron. The fatty skin was puffy and thick with a spicy red sauce that made me mourn the terrible lengua even more. Ryan was clearly proud of his choice, too, grinning as he finished the rest of the tortilla off.
The grin never left his face as he told me about his EOD training, about the dozens of minute tactical decisions and assessments that have to be made before even approaching a bomb or a mine or an IED. He also told me about how he rarely wears the 90-pound bombsuit meant to protect him from the 132 explosive devices he's defused in his decade with the Air Force.
"Everyone knows the bombsuit and everyone associates it with EOD," he said. "It's like everyone knows a firefighter's jacket and helmet. But it also weighs 90 pounds. So we make the choice: Carry around 90 pounds worth of equipment all day long, or be better and faster without it."
"And if I can be better and faster," he finished, "that means a bunch of 18-year-old kids can go home safely from the war. I'd rather sacrifice one of me than a bunch of them. At least, that's the way I look at it."
We stood in silence for a few seconds after that. I contemplated the ways in which one makes a decision like this every day, and the ways in which so many of my own memories of Ryan are tied to us being 18-year-old kids ourselves. I balled up our trash to throw it away, then we walked quietly back to my SUV to continue the tour.
"What will you do when you retire then?" I asked as we headed out. Would he and his wife enjoy their home in Florida, the new boat he just bought? He was briefly contemplative before answering.
"I want to do something quiet," he said. "You know, like become a firefighter."
We both laughed, although I knew he was quite serious. And suddenly the conversation had turned back again to our old favorite subject.
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"I ate at this crazy Puerto Rican buffet up in Dallas recently," Ryan began as we drove on.
Check back tomorrow for part three of They Don't Have Tacos in the Suck.