KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan • A customer once told Vikas Singh when he was working the cash register at a Walgreens in Cape Girardeau that he should hop on his camel and ride back to where he came from.
Singh, 29, sitting under a tarp here last week as a rainy night set in, recalled the off-color comment with a smile.
He didn't tell the customer he was in the Missouri Army National Guard. He didn't think it would have been appropriate.
Singh grew up on a farm near New Delhi. He went to boarding school starting in first grade because his father thought he’d have a better future. After high school, he came to the United States.
“I couldn't put it to words,” he said of his first impression of New York City.
He went on to Cape Girardeau, where he studied industrial management at Southeast Missouri State University. After a few years, though, he realized school wasn’t his thing.
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So he worked odd jobs, with stints at JCPenney, a landscaping company when it was behind on help, and at Walgreens.
He considered moving to the east coast to work with a relative, but before he went, he wanted some quick cash. He ventured out as a deck hand on the Mississippi River.
He stuck with it and soon, working 28 days at a time, traveled most of the river.
His favorite part of the job, which is on hold right now, is the money and listening to the history, like the story of a dying captain telling another that he’d be there to catch the line when it was the second one’s turn in final port.
Singh likes the characters on towboats.
“I do feel like I fit in,” he said. “If I hadn't worked on the river, I would have never met these people.”
Singh also likes horses. He always wanted to stop at a large stable in southeast Missouri. He’d hesitated, he said, because of a stereotype of people from the country. Singh has dark skin and a foreign accent. He said he didn't feel sure how he’d be accepted showing up unannounced.
The day he built up the courage to stop, he met Bill Woodall, who invited Singh back and eventually introduced him to people who taught him a lot about horses.
And when Woodall’s landscaping company was short on help, Singh would lend a hand.
Woodall’s father fought in Vietnam. A roadside bomb in Afghanistan killed his cousin.
Now Singh, a U.S. citizen, helps look for bombs in Afghanistan.
He recalled his story while camped out in the rain with the rest of his platoon, part of the 1138th Engineer Company, which does route clearance.
Through his friendship with Woodall, Singh joined the Guard in 2008. He asked to deploy because, he said, it felt like “paying dues for being in the United States.”
Now Spc. Vikas Singh, a gunner, is more than five months into the deployment. He’ll be happy when he’s home -- not in India, but back in Cape Girardeau.
When he gets there, to his 35-acre spread that neighbors are helping take care of while he’s gone, he won’t be riding camels, but one of his horses.