Monday, May 30, 2016

Live Rounds






When I was in the Army we were called up to be deployed to somewhere. This was one of those situations where there were no warnings, no media reports of any kind, just suddenly we were moving. I took the first telephone call in our battalion. I was the runner that night, which means as a lowly private I had to stay up all night and wait by the phone that never rang unless someone was in jail for DUI or there was a death in someone’s family. Or if we were put on alert so we could go play soldier out in the woods somewhere on Fort Stewart. The Army was a very boring place.

But then the phone rang. I answered it and the guy on the other end of the line seemed more than a little freaked out. He told me to call him back on the call back line, which was standard fare, but this was different. His tone of voice suggested to me that we were going to play soldier in the woods. We were going to play soldier somewhere else this time.
“This is for real, isn’t it sir?” I asked him and there was a heartbeat of silence on the other end of the landline.
“Yes it is private, you move.” And I knew suddenly that being in the Army meant a little more than it had a minute ago.
I actually had to find the sergeant that was supposed to call everyone and wake them up, but there were very few places he could be. He was over at one of the companies drinking coffee with another bored sergeant and they both looked at me like I was crazy. An alert? Are you sure? We aren’t supposed to have one.
“Did you get a call back?” one of them asked and when I told him I did then wheels started turning. Okay, maybe this is a surprise alert. But I could tell that in less than a minute they had started to believe it might be real, too.

I ran through the barracks pounding on doors and waking people up while the sergeant called people who lived off base, and called those people who were supposed to be there first and fastest. My roommate was the company armorer. I went into our room and woke him up and our other roommate, who also had to move fast because he was a medic.
“It’s real, Bob.” I told him. “I think this one is real.”
“No fucking way.” He said but he was on his feet and moving. Suddenly, there was an air of tension as if this had surprised us all. Bob was the person who was going to hand out M-16s and bayonets, and live ammunition.

Men in uniform began to pour out of buildings everywhere and then I knew something was happening. Usually it was just our unit but now there was a lot of traffic on the roads, in the air, and as went back to battalion HQ a chair flew through the air and crashed into the wall in front of me.
“God fucking dammit!” The Sergeant Major screamed. “Where in the fucking hell are my goddam people?”
I knew it was real then. I knew he had gotten a call from someone or called someone, or knew something. This was the one man in uniform I knew who I was actively terrified of in a way that only those in service can understand. This was a man who always wore a .45 on his hip and he never spoke to anyone below the rank of God without cussing at them.
“Private Firesmith where are my goddam people?” He screamed and I told him I had no idea. I had called the people on the list, and those people were supposed to come in and call other people, but there were people on the list I knew weren’t in our unit anymore. Other numbers just didn’t work. The Sergeant Major listened to me and began to nod.
“Private, you go to the armory, and you get your fucking rifle and thirty rounds of ammo. Then you go fucking find Sargent Cleveland and you bring him here to me and if he doesn’t want to come you put a round in him do-you-understand-me-get-your-goddam-ass-moving!”
And move I did.

I went to the armory and Bob looked at me like I had just barfed up a frog. You want your M-16 and ammo? Sergeant Major wants me to go find Sergeant Cleveland and bring him back. Sergeant Major? Shit! Fuck! Here, hold on, and suddenly I was armed.

Sergeant Cleveland was headed for company HQ when I found him. I still remember the look in his eyes when I said, “The Sergeant Major has sent me to find you and you are to come with me to the battalion HQ right now.”
Cleveland was a man dismissive of lowly privates but what was this?
“Why are you carrying your M-16, Firesmith?” Sergeant Cleveland asked and then suddenly he realized who had sent me and why.
“You are to come with me, Sergeant.” I said and at that point had he refused I have no idea what I would have done.
“Okay” he said and he led the way.

We walked into battalion HQ and the Sergeant Major was waiting.
“Goddam you, you incompetent bastard, where are my fucking people, where are my fucking people?” The Sergeant Major screamed and he threw a three ring binder at Cleveland’s face with such force it cut his left cheek. The Sergeant Major’s hand was on his .45 and he pinned Sergeant Cleveland to the wall with his voice. Then the .45 came out and the battalion sergeant took a step forward but looked at me. Time stood still, even over the shouting. Sergeant Cleveland was pinned to the wall, the Sergeant Major was standing there with a .45 in his hand, and I was the only other person in the room who was armed. Was I going to stand there and let the Sergeant Major shoot Sergeant Cleveland? Was I going to stop the battalion sergeant if he tried to intervene? The Sergeant Major, holstered his .45., grabbed Cleveland and tore the insignia off his collar. “You get the fuck off my goddam post, private,” he told Cleveland. Sergeant Major then looked at me and said, “Go get some chow. It’s going to be a long day.”

Later that day Bob was handing out live rounds and rifles. He gave me an extra clip and nodded at me. I was already packing thirty rounds. Would I need them?

Still later we drove to the airfield where a C-140 sat with its nose pulled back as to facilitate loading of our gear. We sat in the sun and waited and waited and waited. No one knew anything at all. We picked up a civilian radio station and learned the United States was invading an island named Grenada. It was real. We were at war. Finally, someone came by and gave us a briefing that we would be landing and taking over the airfield there. Get loaded.

I looked around and there were no heroes. There were no Rambo’s or John Wayne’s. There was this collection of guys I drank with and played racquet ball with and we were not anything like the guys you see on television and in movies. I was scared. We all chewed gum or smoked or sat in silence. I wondered if there was some guy out there on this island I had never heard of who might get shot, by me, before the sun went down. I wondered if I was going to see any of these guys dead.

Bob came up to me and we made a Death Pact; no one would run. Anyone running would be shot by the rest of us. One by one, we all made this Death Pact with one another. Promise me you won’t let me fail you, is what we were saying. I think we meant it.

Ten minutes later someone came up and told us to go back to the base at Fort Stewart. We would not be needed. We drove back and turned in our rifles and our live rounds. We went back to the barracks and pretended to be disappointed we were in battle at that very moment. I was still scared.

Twelve men deserted that day. All were charged and all were released from the Army, very quietly. Sergeant Cleveland left service a month later as a private. The Sergeant Major made sure he was seen by everyone. We were different after that. We suddenly realized that we were wearing a uniform for a reason. We understood what the veterans in our unit had been telling us; you can go to war at any time.

At some point in every war veteran’s life the story continues to the point the planes or boats do get loaded, and by sundown someone is dead. I cannot imagine how terrifying that is. I cannot imagine how scary it is to finally have to shoot or be shot, kill or be killed, live or die, watch others you know die, be wounded horribly, or to have someone captured and disappear.

Millions of American service members have lived the nightmare of combat. Some of them never made it home again.

Make sure you remember that fact today.

Take Care,
Mike

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Migration and Movement





I’ve watched bats and birds fly through the air in great numbers and never have I seen a fraction of them fall from the sky, locked in mortal battle, dying for their bird length or bat length of territory. In fact, I’ve never even heard of this happening. Even more incredible is some species of birds. Like starlings and blackbirds, seem to fly in complex formation, moving, changing directions, incidentally creating seemingly impossible patterns, and without conflict within the flock. Geese manage to travel the length of a continent without leaving any dead behind, victims of those who were honked at, and retaliated with mortal force. You see where I’m going, don’t you, no pun intended?

I watched as a car pulled out of a parking lot, into traffic, and the driver didn’t look once. I was already braking, already slowing down, because I expect the worst from drivers. I knew a woman who charged at people like this with her car. She also walked with a permanent limp because of a wreck she was in. Anywhere other than behind the wheel she was sweet, and possibly even innocent. Once a driver she became a Demon. I briefly wondered if the car that had just pulled out in front of me was driven by this woman.

Then the car stopped.

I was slowing down but I wasn’t prepared for this level of stupidity. This is a four lane highway. This is one of the busiest roads in Valdosta. And this person has just locked it down and stopped in the middle of the road. Seeing the stupid, traffic goes around me, and I have to stop, and the car behind me has to stop, and the car behind me lights me up with blue lights. Damn, a deputy.

Maybe this guy is having car troubles so I get out to see if I can help and as I get out the driver of other car,the Anti-Starling, gets out and he’s clearly pissed.
“Get off my damn ass!” he screams and I realize that he’s mad because I was so close to him. He also ignores the deputy who yells, “Get back in your vehicle!”

The Open Carry Proponents would have us believe that two more handguns would make this confrontation a delightful and peaceful interlude to the day’s driving, but I’m personally very happy the Anti-Starling isn’t packing. But I do realize I’m between one man carrying a loaded pistol and another man who, clearly, cannot drive. Get back in my vehicle is something I’m good with and I realize that I am marginally less safe in an aluminum and glass container that is boxed in. The deputy is advancing with one hand on his pistol and the other hand in front of him pointing, get back in your car, get back in your car, hey, dammit, don’t you start walking towards me.

There’s a cop, city cop, that’s walked up on this, and she taps on my window and looks at me. I have both hands on the steering wheel and I’m hoping she’s going to get me the hell out of here but she has no idea what’s going on. She asks for my license and insurance card but the Anti-Starling has doubled down and is pointing at me as the deputy is trying to keep him back. More cops show up. The passenger in the Anti-Starling get out of the car as a deputy motions for him. He looks freaked out. He looks back at the number of armed people who have joined this scene and he realizes, maybe late, that something very terrible can come from this.
A deputy has taken up position behind AS and holy mother of god he’s drawn his gun. The city cop isn’t looking at what I’ve taken out of my wallet and she’s focused on the scene in front of her. She takes a step away from my truck and tells me, “Don’t move.”

The first deputy tells AS to turn around and put his hands on the car and this is the first step that accelerates the scene to a level from which we aren’t all going to drive away after a few shorts words about driving safely. The passenger screams, “Kelly! Goddammit they’re going to kill you.” And AS, who is now Kelly, looks around as if he’s just been stricken with the gift of sight if not intelligence. He realizes that ten feet away is a cop who has drawn a weapon and now he sees this as one of those incidents where someone gets shot, dead, on the street. I slip my cell phone into my hand and turn the camera onto video.

Kelly puts his hands on the top of his car and his friend is talking to him, be cool man, just be cool, it’s okay, it’s okay, be cool, Kelly, it’s okay. The deputy searches Kelly but doesn’t put cuffs on him. Damn, man, what the actual fuck? I mean really. Why did you push this thing like this?

The city cops now looks at my stuff and asks me what in the hell just happened here? She frowns at my phone.
Did that deputy have to draw his gun? I have to ask, because I’m behind the guy he was going to shoot. I mean, there’s cars all over the damn place, is the gun something that has to come out here?
“Left hand, taser” she replies without emotion.
“Oh”

The first deputy comes back and tells the city cop what happened and they’re writing Kelly a couple of tickets. They’re also searching his car and now he seems to understand something has happened. I ask the deputy, really, what the hell? He shakes his head.

I look up and see geese flying overhead, honking, making noise, but heading in the same direction, Geese are evil, the city cops tells me and she grins at me.


The dogs are barking at something in the moonlight. I sit up and Kelly is gone, the cop is gone, and somewhere I hear the distant call of geese in the night. The sound fades away and Tyger Linn jumps up on the bed, and wants to be allowed out, to hunt in the darkness.

Take Care,
Mike

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Time To Write.







There for a short while I knew a couple of people who thought as long as they knew I was home, it was okay to knock on the door and just come on inside. That isn’t cool. Now that was back before I sported large dogs and honestly, having large dogs will cut a lot of that out. Bert didn’t give a damn if he knew you, you knew me, we knew one another, no, none of that mattered at all to Bert. If you came through the door Bert was going to stand you down. You were going to stop. You were going to show the canine equivalent of an olfactory ID and you were not going to just walk on in. Bert meant it.

I miss that.

Out here in Hickory Head a person has to mean it to come here. I don’t get interrupted very often. When I do it is usually important or at least worth my while, or, at a minimum, worth someone’s while who has come here. That does mean something to me, that someone would drive all the way out here to see me. It means they really want to see me or they need me in some way that is urgent. I’m down with that. I will help my friends.

There’s been about three people on this earth I could tell, “I’m writing” and that those people would just stop and back away. Most people I don’t bother to tell I’m writing because that would lead to me having to explain what I am writing, or why I am writing. I don’t need that. I need to write.

At work, I have sixty minutes of my own time to do with as I please, but I get that full hour to write about once a month. People want to talk, they want to socialize, they want to talk work things, and because I have a position that demands a lot of interaction with human beings I put up with all of this. I can save and close a document in the time it takes someone to pull up, get out of their car, and walk up the steps. I’ve done it a few hundred times.

Back when I was working nightshift for a while I got to write during lunch, and there were a lot of breaks. Some of my best ideas came out of that era of my life, even if I did have to rewrite a lot of it. I like to have at least a couple of hours without distraction to write and it’s easy to see where having a full time job and four dogs and a house and a yard might not yield that on a daily basis. Saturday mornings are the best, with coffee, because if I get up at five then I’ve slept in a little, and I have a couple of hours before the sun is high enough for yardwork and the dogs are still sleepy. If the weather is right, cold and blustery, I can stretch this out for half a day or even longer.

I’ve dated women who didn’t understand my need to write. It’s something that some people miss entirely. Those without a creative outlet can’t see it as what it is. Usually, they put up with it like they would a guy watching football every once in a while, but in the end, noncreative types begin to have a problem with the idea that this writing thing is going to be around for a lot longer than they could realize. Invariably, I get accused of cheating. It seems a little unlikely that a man would, or could, spend that much time doing something that doesn’t involve sports or sex. Yes, I admit it, the whole concept is very strange. But I’m a writer. I write. I do not do very much at all except that.

Writing is hard work. Yes, there are times the words flow and I just zip along, but there’s a lot to keep up with in a story. What are other characters doing while the main characters are doing what they are doing? What’s everyone’s agenda? What time is it? What’s the date? Day or night? When does sexual tension become something physical? There’s a difference between letting a reader know something is going to happen between two people and overplaying it. Sometimes, it’s little things, a touch of a hand, two people agreeing on something, perhaps both of these things, then suddenly, alone in a cabin in the woods where a bear has killed three people, they realize life is short and they are drunk.

Meanwhile, real life is still happening. The phone rings, dogs bark, neighbors have cows that moo and chickens that for unexplainable reasons, crow all night, delivery people arrive with boxes, and clothes do not wash themselves and dogs need love. And girlfriends; don’t call a woman and tell her you’re in the middle of a great sentence, you’ll be an hour or so late.

It’s hard to tell a woman, “Trust me, it was hard enough to talk you into taking your jeans off for me, there’s nearly no chance in hell that I can get two women to do it within the same year, much less at the same time” even if that is closer to the truth than I like. And very few women want to hear something like that and even less, “I write, it is what I do, and when we are not together that is what I am doing.”

The sad truth here is we live in a world that has very little respect for creativity. People play video games, they watch television and binge watch Netflix, but that’s okay. They go to sports events, they sit around and talk about one show or another, but the idea that a person might sit down and create, and take the time to create, and ask they be given the time for this, is downright alien.

Take Care,
Mike