Iraq: Dandelion Wine

Before I begin, for those who were concerned about my skim milk status rest assured that I have a fridge full of it.  Some of the milk expired in January, but that stuff’s so packed with “Stabilizers: E 412 & E 407” and “Emulsifier E 471” that I should be good.  Manufacturers are always super conservative when it comes to expiration dates anyways.

The lieutenant had a grim mien: “Sergeant M____, I have bad news.”

A year ago I would have braced myself for what would follow.  Lean in, prepare to receive.  Today bad news is the perverse punch line to an ongoing joke.  If things go well I grow doubtful, suspicious, paranoid.  What’s the angle?  Good things should go poorly, disappoint.  It fits the pattern, makes sense.

Me, laughing, spreading a ready smile: “What is it sir?  Do tell!”

Lieutenant: “They still haven’t moved on the Green Zone team.”

Did he honestly think I’d be surprised nothing had happened?  The Green Zone, the International Zone, the Emerald City… fantasy, all of it!   I never believed them when they said they would send me there to live the Imperial Life in that walled land of milk and State Department honeys, spending my days tanning towards a nearly-civilian existence at the Embassy pool.  It was promising, and therefore impossible.

They were supposed to set it up last October.  I was going to lead it with a few handpicked friends, guys and a gal I had known for years.  A dream team, mod squad, oh well.

My company had had enough with the waiting and decided I didn’t deserve purgatory (I have been baptized, after all).  The next morning I left my downtown Baghdad outpost on a convoy back to Victory Base Camp, the 20,000 soldier megabase southeast of Baghdad.  That night I was on a C-130 bouncing around the country for four long hours before landing out here.  All it took to end six months of stagnation was a “hey, maybe we should send Sergeant M____ out there instead?”

And I couldn’t be happier.  I am in a place where I am about to do work, thankfully.  The only downside is that we are already shutting down, closing up shop where teams aren’t being replaced, consolidating gear and turning in equipment.  I started running ten feet from the finish line.  Some race that was.  At least now I can start thinking realistically about what to do next.

Enter my Dandelion Wine Dilemma.

I had never heard of dandelion wine before I stumbled across the concept in a Raymond Carver story.  The drink’s name had a pleasant, lilting meter, such delicious sound!  Google, filling in my blanks, pointed me to a wine making website of a Mr. Jack Keller.  The site was last updated on November 2nd, 2000, but the information seemed legit; I can’t imagine the past decade has seen much change in the world of dandelion winemaking.

Dandelion wine, turning a weed into a treat with little more than fruit, yeast and nutrient.  It held the promise of a sunny summer afternoon, driving my Jeep – top down, natch – out to some abandoned fields in farm country.  I’d probably have something light on the radio, maybe spread out a blanket and take a nap once we’d picked enough, delighting as bulbous clouds provided intermittent diversity in an otherwise majestic blue sky.

Then head back to the cabin, boil the flowers (making sure no stems are attached to the head), add sugar and citrus peels, let boil for an hour, pour into a crock pot and add the juice and pulp from the lemons and oranges, let stand ’til cool, add yeast, let sit in a warm place for three days, top up with some water, strain and pour into some jugs, add some raisins for body, let ferment, strain and rack after the wine clears, top up with some water, let sit for a month or two to get rid of remaining lees, wait for the dandelion wine to age to perfection.  After that, the only thing left is to uncork and enjoy a year or so later, perhaps at a picnic in the very same field… under the same summer sun…

Yeah, dandelion wine sounds all right.

An hour of Wikipedia linking and I had a good idea of homemade wine how-to’s: prep, rack, ferment, age.  As simple as one, two, three, four.  From here, Google brought me to www.winemakersdepot.com, where my online cart quickly filled with vinyl tubing and siphon hose shut-off clamps (for racking), 2 square yards of cheese cloth (coarse filter to catch the larger lees during initial straining), a 15″x23″ straining bag (for the finer lees when I’m about ready to bottle), six airlocks (to bleed oxygen during the fermentation period), rubber stoppers, #8 natural grade corks, a double lever Portuguese corker, and a dozen clear Bordeaux bottles for the treasure.  Click checkout, subtotal $36.09, $41.09 with shipping.  Payment details entered, confirm.

Now all I need are dandelions and time.  A Michigan summer should provide plenty of flowers, but time doesn’t grow in fields.  I’ll need at least a day for picking/boiling, wait three days to let things sit, a couple weeks to let the wine ferment, another two months then final rack and bottling, and then a year of aging.  Quite a commitment for dandelion wine.

A worthy commitment, I think, kind of like college- which I should probably finish.  We will wrap up operations in late May. By the second week of June I should have my life back, grow out a beard, be civilian again.  As it stand now, by the time I go back to school I will be graduating with the class who were freshman when I left for Iraq.  I probably shouldn’t slide that any more to the right.  But there is still the question of the rest of this summer, where the dandelion wine dilemma comes into full effect.

Now, to graduate from college I need two years of a language.  At present I have one year of three foreign languages: Arabic, Dutch, and Russian.  Enough to be able to understand squiggly dots and backwards ‘R’s but nowhere near the requirement.

And continuing with Arabic or Russian would be a lot of work; I would need some way to catch up to be able to  transition into the first semester of second year studies.  Which means independent study over the summer, ideally an immersion program abroad.  No way in hell am I coming back to the Middle East so quickly on the heels of this little vacation, and frankly, Russia isn’t terribly appealing.

So goedemorgen Nederlands!  While not quite as strategically relevant, Dutch offers some delights unknown to Russians and Arabs.

For one, the word for hug in Dutch is ‘knuffle.’  Say it out loud with me, rounding out each syllable like you’re playing with a puppy: kah-newww-fil.

Seriously, how cute is that?  And the word for peanut butter, pindakaas, becomes panda cheese if you misspell it.  Dutch is adorable, even in error!

I’m more than ready to embrace adorable over the threatening allah akbar! of Arabic and the scornful tone of Russian, cruel like a Lubyanka lullaby.

So this summer I will be living in Utrecht, studying Dutch, riding bikes, venturing around to take advantage of my Eurail pass, etc.  Just the type of nice, meandering European vacation I need.

This is my Dandelion Wine Dilemma.  How can I do all of this and still adequately tend to my precious home brew?  How can I balance the enjoyment I have promised myself after months of boredom with a responsibility to my future?  I need to learn Dutch, I need to graduate from college, but I also need to make that dandelion wine, experience the fruit of labor that is completely frivolous.

Enough of this heavy living, life and death and blah blah blah.  I just want to pick some flowers and put them in a jug for a year.

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