Have you ever flown in a helicopter under the cover of darkness and known that somewhere beneath you in all the lights there are people who wish you harm? I have. Let me tell you all about it…
From time to time I volunteer my time and services to the U.S. armed forces. I look at it as my way to give back to the brave men and women who give so selflessly so that I can live safely in this great country. That takes me to different places in the world to entertain the men and women of our military and give them a taste of home. On one of my trips I found myself in Baghdad, Iraq.
Several days before I had flown in the back of a military transport plane from another country into Iraq. We had performed a show the evening before and somehow, my performing partner Stephen Bargatze, scored a seat in the cockpit of the plane with the pilots. Go figure!
While Stephen was enjoying a bird’s eye view, I was stuck in the back of the plane with all sorts of equipment, and a bunch of heavily armed guys that were making the trip with me (but definitely not going to entertain anyone).
When we landed Stephen asked me if I had seen the Iraqi fighter jets that came up to meet us the moment we reached Iraqi airspace. I told him that I hadn’t. He shrugged. I guess you get to see all the cool stuff when you make the pilots laugh at the show the night before!
The next day we performed our first show for a small group of guys who looked like they really needed a laugh or two. Later that day we found out that while we were there a big bomb went off on the other side of the city killing many local Iraqi citizens.
That night we hopped on our first helicopter and flew from one side of Baghdad to the other side. We landed, literally, in the middle of nowhere. The moment we hit the ground we were greeted by our host who told us that the guys were in the theatre waiting for us.
You should have heard the cheer that went up the moment we walked into the room. I later found out that these guys had not had any sort of entertainment in almost a year. Now keep in mind, it’s the middle of the night, we just got off our first helicopter flight, and we are doing magic tricks and comedy in the middle of nowhere, Iraq. But dadgummit, we gave those guys one heck of a show!
After the show, we got on another helicopter and went to another base. We finally hit the sack around 4: 30 or 5 o’clock that morning. Let me just say that Baghdad is a beautiful city when you are looking at it from a helicopter, but a bed is a more beautiful site after you’ve performed multiple shows, been wearing heavy body armor, and have been flying all over the place.
The next day we did “meet and greets” that involved lots of card tricks for a bunch of different units, and then we got ready for that night’s show. One of the most interesting things for me was how every base we visited took care of my need for a camera to project a live video feed onto a projector screen so everyone could see my sleight of hand.
Some bases had full video production teams with multiple cameras and incredible setups, and at other bases they got creative. At this particular base, somehow the AV guy had rigged a webcam that was on a laptop to run through a projector and shoot the image on my playing cards onto the screen. It worked like a charm.
That evening’s show was particularly memorable because of all the different soldiers from all the different countries who attended. We had a bunch of Aussies (Australians) and Kiwis (New Zealanders) on the front row. These guys were hilarious. They were vocal and funny and everyone had a great time!
That evening, we were waiting on our flight out of, what I referred to as the “hot zone”, and some of the guys working offered us cigars. Now I hadn’t had a cigar since I was about twenty-two or three, but heck yeah I wanted to smoke a cigar with a bunch of American soldiers in the middle of a hot Baghdad night while I waited for a flight!
So we all smoked cigars while Stephen rocked the crowd one more time with his great close-up magic!