A Man With a Mission
The chants seem to come from somewhere in my subconscious, bubbling through my REM sleep until I'm awake. There are perhaps 20 or 30 voices, chanting in unison. It's 5 a.m. It takes a blank moment for me to remember where I am: in a tent, in a village, in the middle of Sudan, in the middle of a 25-year conflict between north and south. The tent opens with an inaudible zip, and Stefan Templeton, already dressed, whispers, "Quietly -- follow me."
As we move away from the tent, he stops me. "Grab a roll of toilet paper . . . if we're caught, it looks like we're going to the latrine." With the stars for guidance, we creep through the frogs and the goats, 20 yards to the pit latrine (the less about which, the better) and the reeds that wall the compound. The chanting is louder now. Templeton motions for me to keep my head below the sightlines. He passes the night-vision monocular to me. I press the lens through the reeds.
Twenty yards away, a couple dozen men, some in uniform, are in a military formation, chanting, running in place, machine guns held aloft. How they see each other in the pitch black is beyond me, but they are a tight unit, nothing slovenly or banana republic about them. Templeton makes a walking motion with his fingers -- the horizon is cracking blue to the east, and we should go. This is not a good place to be seen.
Thirty years ago, Stefan Templeton and I were childhood friends on Baltimore's west side. But we had mostly lost touch after 1985, when he moved to Europe right after high school. Templeton wasn't the kind of guy who held on to the past. I'd find out later that it was more than just his stoicism that precluded postcards and phone calls: He liked being off the grid for a reason.
In 2006, I'd just finished a memoir, "Ace of Spades," detailing some of our experiences together. Templeton and I had both grown up as mixed-race kids in a fairly segregated city, and our friendship was forged along the lines of two kids whose only other cultural touchstones were each other. Templeton had since moved back to the United States, to Washington. The book's 2007 publication seemed like a good time to reconnect.
It was on that first night back together that he told me about some of his humanitarian missions -- including the one he'd just returned from in Abyei, in southern Sudan. When he said, "I'm going again in November," he had offered, "You wanna come along?" After so many years apart, after never having been anywhere as anything more than a tourist, I couldn't say no.
I thought the mission was supposed to be about ensuring clean sources of water along an evacuation corridor through the bush in the event of civil war, but now, with the chant of soldiers a steady drone, I get the feeling that there's more to this mission, and to my old friend, than he's letting on.
Back at the tent, between the chants, Templeton whispers: "War, man . . . it's coming."
Two weeks earlier: I am standing in Stefan Templeton's Mount Pleasant living room.
"What's that stand for?" I ask. His combat boots, tan and well-worn, about to be packed into his duffel bag, have the letters A+/NKDA Sharpied across the back. He folds his satellite phone into the bag, his massive frame hunched over what looks like an Army-Navy surplus sale.
"Blood type, no known drug allergies. In case I can't speak for myself."