Fire in the Hole!

Elliot Bay BooksMy little book, Nothing In Reserve, has attracted a reading date at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. 

5-6pm September 10th
1521 Tenth Avenue
Seattle WA 98122

Because I’m more of a writer than a performer, a friendly face (or several) helps keep me from mumbling into my chest. Even if you already have your copy signed, sealed and delivered, it would be great to see you there. It would also give us an excuse to go out and celebrate with you afterward.

For those who’ve read Nothing In Reserve, here’s a piece that didn’t survive the editorial cut. At some point, we became persuaded that no one needed 600 uninterrupted pages of part-time military impressionism. Still, I couldn’t quite throw this bit out, so I’m putting it up here.

Enjoy.

========================

January 2003

I drilled with the 361st Psychological Operations Company for the first time in January, 2003. That was the month I turned 39 years old. My mid-life crisis was overdue, fines and penalties pending.

When I walked into the cage area in the back of the building on the day I drew my TA-50 issue, the rubbery, brassy, oil-sheen smell of military equipment suffusing the area cast me instantly back in time. That smell still makes my stomach jump a little in memory of the supply sheds of younger years in South Carolina, Korea, Oklahoma and Georgia. You always knew the supply daddy was going to call you out for being late, fo­­­­r having holes in your waterproof bag and no black finish left on the bronze buckle of your pistol belt that was probably a three-tour veteran of Vietnam.

Taxpayers give gear to soldiers to fight wars. Soldiers receive gear to make their jobs possible. Gear, for the most part, is inventoried and cleaned until it’s worn out from garrison scrubbing and polishing and the only-occasional field use that immediately results in more cleaning and re-fitting. Gear, to a garrison soldier, is primarily a lever by which his sergeant winds him up.

That first drill was spent inventorying and assembling my new issue, cleaning other folks’ rifles, and listening to Sergeant Jerry Rose prattle on about how we PSYOPers “gotta be hard to survive.” He was a former mortarman and lifetime motor-mouth, shaped approximately like a fragmentation grenade and hard as a beanbag chair.

His favorite tagline was, “I’m not your buddy.

“If you get killed, I will take your stuff.”

Subtle, these psychological operators were, and clever, too. Another of Rose’s favorite provocations was to tell every Caucasian within earshot that whatever nonsense had just squirted logorrhetically from his lips was “a black thing.”

“You wouldn’t understand,” he would assure us white boys.

He was right, of course—I didn’t understand. Rose’s skin was the color of weak tea, about two shades lighter than my wife’s, and I wasn’t sure why that was supposed to be a big deal in Bothell, a suburban town in Snohomish County, Washington. Everything assumed a certain artificial drama around SGT Rose, who swore the only reason he wasn’t a deep, dark secret squirrel with the CIA was because he had too many tattoos (two, actually: a Thai hooker and a bunny rabbit). His big mouth had, of course, nothing to do with it.

Just off the loading dock, Rose lectured a circle of us new guys on survival equipment, rucksack packing, and setting up our LBV, the near-useless replacement for the perfectly functional, WWII-derived LBE suspenders and belt I remembered from two decades earlier. The fun upgrade feature of LBV is that you can’t quickly pull magazines out of its integrated ammo pouches. LBV has since been supplanted, thankfully, by the imperfect but far more useful MOLLE gear. Not for Reservists, but for everyone else.

That afternoon in the motor pool, SGT Rose put a pocketknife to my throat when I asked him a question. I guess I have that effect on people.

“You want to take me on now?,” he asked. “What about it, Specialist?”

Figuring that he wouldn’t want to clean up the mess if he cut me, I shrugged away from him and locked up into the position of parade rest, feet placed shoulder-width apart and my hands stacked flat against the small of my back. Refusing to eyeball him, I stared at his forehead.

“Sergeant, please don’t ever do that again.”

“Yeah?  Why not?  I’m the sergeant here.” He threw out his round little chest and thrust his nose in the air. “What?  What?

“That’s right!,” he prattled on. “You better be at parade rest!”

Oh, my. It had been awhile since I’d run into him, and all the petty tyrants like him. Flatly amazed by this performance, I gazed down at him. “Because I’ll beat the living hell out of you. I wouldn’t mind at all, Sergeant.

“I’ve been a private before.”

I kind of hoped he wouldn’t end up as my team chief.

Sunday afternoon before that drill ended, SGT Rose sat down with me back in the cages to BS about sources for good equipment on the cheap. Like practically every unit active or reserve, the 361st didn’t have enough large rucksacks, good sleeping bags or flashlights for its soldiers.

Then Rose busted out a lighter, a small wad of 550 cord and the same drop blade he’d pulled on me earlier. Talking softly, as though nothing untoward had ever happened, he calmly made me up a set of Ranger beads. Plastic pace count beads from the PX are cast in the shape of tiny skulls and last about a week, but mine were a gift and are knotted from unbreakable parachute cord.

I carried them to Iraq and into the Buckley SF unit afterward, tied off to my gear. They weren’t heavy. They didn’t rattle or click.

There was luck in them.

———————

E.J. and I were of an age where we should have had better things to do, we agreed. It was a thing worth laughing about on a regular basis, so we coined ourselves a special acronym, TOFF, to memorialize our unique status.

Soldiers can never have too many acronyms; it’s one way we maintain our mysterious fraternity. That explains why the elegant terms “deuce-and-a-half” and “six-by-six” for a medium working truck devolved into the graceless “LMTV,” meaning “Light Medium Tactical Vehicle.” You might note that a truck cannot be simultaneously both “light” and “medium”—it makes no sense at all—but that’s because you’re a civilian, overmastered by your own cynical logic. You clearly do not possess sufficient basic training inculcation to understand that joining the army is a lot like watching an action movie or reading farce: without the willing suspension of disbelief, you can’t possibly enjoy the experience in full.

The minimum jargon component also ensured that our team’s machine gun was never deemed anything so simple and declarative as a “machine gun.” It was a “SAW” or a “two-four-nine,” and in any case recently had been re-classified from machine gun status to that of an “automatic rifle”—which is by no means the same as an assault rifle, a battle rifle, a carbine or a submachine gun. The last weapon so classified was the Browning Automatic Rifle of World War II—and it was inevitably called a “B-A-R” in accordance with the minimum jargon component requirement. See how we stay one step ahead?

E.J. and I accepted our immersion refresher course in acronymese with gusto.

“We’re your TOFFs,” we told Dirk, our new team sergeant. “You lucked into having the best damned TOFFs in this sorry-ass unit.”

Dirk just squinted at us with a perplexed half-grin until we finally told him it stood for “Tired Old Fat Fuckers.”

The three of us were now a TPT—a “Tactical PSYOP Team”—at least for the next few weeks, and we were going off to spend a month together at a West Virginia MOS re-classification school to become “37 Foxtrots.” Thirty-seven Fox was the MOS designator for Psychological Operations Specialist. Forever after, we’d be known to our supported units as “the PSYOP guy,” PSYOPers, mind fuckers, and “who the hell are you?”

“Think they’ll teach us the Vulcan mind meld?,” E.J. asked me as we waited at Sea-Tac in the small hours of the morning.

E.J. was a former Reserve cavalry scout, from back when the Reserves had such jobs.Since then, he’d picked up a BA in Philosophy, sparred muy thai professionally in Thailand, written some software and eventually washed up on the lucrative digital beach of Microsoft’s research division. I was a former reporter and cabling contractor with a master’s degree and a teenager’s job. We TOFFs had each re-entered the part-time military at 39 years of age.

I met our team chief by accident, the first day he showed up. A journeyman union carpenter, Dirk was a prior-enlisted Civil Affairs sergeant with a narrow waist and a wide grin, and he was standing in the hallway of the Reserve Center stressing about not having a beret. I knew what he felt like.

We just wore BDU caps, way back in the bad old Eighties before General Shinseki became the army chief of staff and decided the Rangers looked so sharp in their black berets he would just pass those out to the whole fam-damly. Now every clerk, cook and PSYOPer wears a black beret and Rangers, who first got black berets as LRRP teams in Vietnam, wear their beanies in a fetching IBM flesh-tone.

They must be pissed.

Since I had an extra beanie in the truck by virtue of pure bad planning, I handed it off to Dirk and passed along the fitting instructions I’d received from a lieutenant in a surplus shop in Tillicum.

Tillicum, the post town across Interstate 5 from Fort Lewis, was a dirty little strip of pawnbrokers and surplus stores, barbers and tailors and teriyaki slingers and gas stations. Unlike many post towns, there were no titty bars in Tillicum.

I celebrated that fact quietly to myself as my daughter Malia and I drove there to shop for a beret, a “Hollywood knife” and some collar stripes. Malia was just 12, and although I knew that she knew most of what I didn’t want to explain to her, I still didn’t want to answer all the questions, all at once—I am a coward in many ways. This particular visitation Saturday turned out to be “Support The Troops Day” in Tillicum. As we rattled across the overpass from  Fort Lewis to Tillicum in our antique truck, Malia and I were met by about 50 people cheering, waving flags and blowing us kisses.

The horizontal rain didn’t faze them. They just jammed their hats down a little tighter and leaned into the wind. Malia looked at them curiously.

“Daddy, why are those people here?”

“They want to make soldiers feel good about what they do.”

“No.” She sounded impatient. “I mean why are they here today?”

“Some people are leaving today.”

She thought about that for a moment. “When are you leaving?”

“Not today, sweetie. Might not leave at all.”

“Is it dangerous, what you do in the army?”

“Not really. We’re just advertisers, basically.” PSYOP, I thought, should be titled “Madison Avenue for Dummies.”

“You’ll be okay, anyway,” Malia said, and I looked across the cab at her.

“Yep, I’ll be fine. Coming back to see you, no matter what.

“You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

“I knew that,” she said, settling into the squeaky bench seat and pulling my wool mackinaw tightly around her.

———————-

The Burke Gilman Trail, pride of Seattle’s alternative energy fetishists, ran from Redmond on the eastside inbound through Bothell, along the Sammamish Slough and the north shore of Lake Washington into Seattle, edging along the Montlake Cut past the University of Washington and, with occasional incoherent breaks, all the way through the old-time Norwegian fishing enclave of Ballard. We weren’t that ambitious, though.

All we needed in order to “SOF-certify”the ruck march event was to hike six miles in 90 minutes or less, toting 55 pounds or more—simple. In order to avoid spooking the locals, no weapons were drawn from the arms room,.

So there we walked, a line of men and women in green, brown and black camouflage, rattling with gear like two-legged chuck wagons and sweating copiously, strung out along the Burke Gilman Trail as we road-marched east out of Bothell. It was a beautiful day. I wished I were wearing shorts and holding hands with my lovely wife instead of chugging along in a bloated rucksack (I went a little overboard with the water) and web gear.

We passed the occasional older couple walking hand in hand, but mostly just watched people blaze by on roller blades and bicycles, or less frequently in running jerseys. Most walkers and runners were cordial, encouraging us to “hang in there,” some even going so far as to say, “God bless you!” Roller bladers usually announced “on your left!” as they zipped by and waved, and most of the bikers rang thumb bells so that we could all scrunch over to the right as they whizzed by.

But there’s always “that guy,” isn’t there?

You can tell the elite athletes on the Burke, just as you can anywhere, by their oddly colored Togs Of Commitment and because they don’t deign to speak with mortals. When one peloton of high-toned peddlers swooped down on us from behind, they never made a sound louder than breathing until, just as their leader came even with our trail man, he rapidly back-pedaled with a sudden, ripping zzzzzz-zzzzzzz. Three soldiers nearly fell over, scuttling out of the gang’s way under the weight of big rucks, but no one was injured. We heard the biker punks snickering as they sped up the line and their leader, too sexy for his Spandex, yelled, “Watch out for bicyclists, idiots!”

That boy was just begging for a stick in his spokes, but we’d never catch them. Still, Dirk got in the last word. As the skin-suiters pelted off up the trail, he switched into command voice and advised their leader, “Hey, asshole!

“Watch out for bayonets!”

———————————

First Lieutenant Parrish, acting company commander, was a pleasant-natured chubby guy who liked nothing better than to stand out on the loading dock, chain smoking and telling war stories about training at Yakima with his National Guard unit ten years previously. Substantially overweight, he hadn’t passed a PT test in anyone’s memory, but he would tell anyone that was forced to listen that he could ruck like a madman. Infantry: “Follow me!”

We hadn’t seen him in a while.

SFC MacDougall, bad back exempting him from PT and weight carrying, checked off times and rucksack weights at the finish line. Each soldier trooping in off the trail would stand on the scale, then remove their pack and weigh in again. When I got there and weighed in my pack at 74 pounds, Doog laughed his bald head off.  I was 19 pounds over my required weight—and that was after I drank half the water.

“What the hell were you thinking of, Lewis?”

“Hey, I made time, didn’t I?”

It wasn’t all that impressive. A six-mile forced march isn’t the biggest challenge in the army, even for flabby Reservists, and there is no land navigation component when you’re busting straight out and back along a paved trail. Most of we weekend soldiers sweated and panted, but didn’t have much trouble chalking up a SOF time on the march. Dirk, E.J. and I stopped during the march to do pull-ups at a playground, rucksacks on.

Just a few straggled in past the 90-minute SOF-cert mark. As the two-hour “bolo” time loomed, just one PSYOP soldier remained out on the trail: the lieutenant.

With his watch ticking down the last ten minutes of time, Doog tapped a couple of true athletes who had come in nearly an hour before.

“Jenkins, Gustafson—go out there and find the lieutenant.

“Now.”

It only took them 20 minutes or so to locate 1LT Parrish and guide him in, clutching the side pockets of his rucksack like ocean tugs nudging a supertanker toward the loading terminal. As they hauled him across the finish line, I saw Doog resetting his wristwatch and grinning.

“Well, you just made time, sir.”

“How ‘bout that?,” somebody muttered.

“At ease that shit!,” Doog barked. Lieutenant Parrish collapsed onto the grass and rolled feebly out of his rucksack, one arm at a time. Panting like a hound on a Mississippi porch, he lay on his back and slowly unbuttoned his shirt. Underneath, his sopping wet t-shirt was pasted tight over a belly of pale prodigiousness.

I single-handed his pack onto the scale. I must not have been all that tired, because it felt pretty light.

“Pass,” remarked Doog without looking at the weight.

The lieutenant, having clearly been betrayed, whined, “Why didn’t you guys tell me the trail split?”

“What are you talking about, sir?”

“There was a place… you could go both ways… ”

He was too winded to talk, so it took awhile to understand that this redoubtable infantry officer, alone among all participants, had detoured off the 12-foot-wide, marked and paved Burke Gilman Trail, and wandered alone, lost and exhausted through a housing subdivision. To his credit, the lieutenant never gave up.

This was the man who later would command us in Iraq.

————————-

It was our first field drill, rolling down to Fort Lewis for a land navigation course whereon E.J. would pull a calf muscle in the night and I would contract a case of cellulitis and spend three days at Madigan Army Medical Center with an IV sack of antibiotics draining into one arm and the other arm hoisted into the air.

None of this had happened yet. We were waiting in a line of vehicles at the fueling point, chilling out while we shared bad jokes and lies.

SGT Schlotzky was my temporary TPT chief. A porcine blonde cell phone salesman,  he would soon return to the bosom of the 81st Brigade, Washington Army National Guard and deploy to Iraq as the tank driver he was in his deepest soul. SGT Schlotzky told us to keep our helmets on as he stepped out to ground-guide our vehicle to the diesel pumps.

“Didn’t Sergeant MacDougall tell us to take them off until we hit the training area, Sergeant?”

“Keep ‘em on,” he said, slamming the door.

We kept them on. Two minutes later, SFC MacDougall poked his helmetless bean in from the other side of the truck, and looked at us like we were idiots.

“I told you guys you don’t have to wear your helmets,” he said. “Now take ‘em off, and put on your PCs.”

The PC, or patrol cap, is what we used to call “BDU caps” way back when. Back then, only Rangers had “patrol caps,” which were a solid olive drab. Rangers were also the only ones with black berets, now worn by lah-dee dah-dee everybody, but I digress. Either way, it was always nicer to wear a soft cap than the damned helmet, and it made us feel so very special, in that Special Operations sense, to play by just one less silly rule than the “big army” of FORSCOM.

Doog slammed our door shut and walked up the line. Looking at each other with small smiles, we shucked our skulls out of their shells and rubbed our scalps, feeling instantly better. The Kevlar combat helmet truly was a pain, especially if you possessed a big, pointed melon like yours truly.

I was first issued the PASGT helmet at Fort Stewart in 1985, and was immediately offended by its lack of functionality and comfort. The obsoleted “steel pot” helmets of yore were the Swiss Army knife of headgear. Separated from its liner, the steel shell offered a wonderful panoply of field-expedient maintenance options. You could cook in it, bathe in it, and use it to police up spent brass on the range. It made a perfect shaving basin, which was something you didn’t want to do out of your canteen cup unless you harbored a secret enjoyment of the trots. Steel pots made fine field stools, whereas this use was prohibited with Kevlars, which couldn’t even be dropped safely. And of course, you couldn’t dig with the high-tech wunderkopf, either, so you now had to actually carry the deadweight of an e-tool, making for one more item to clean when you came out of the field—if you dug with the new Kevlar, its lack of a removable liner meant you would get all that dirt in your hair when you clapped it back on your bean at the approach of a recently graduated lieutenant.

However, unlike the venerable steel pots, Kevlars occasionally actually stopped actual bullets from actually killing actual soldiers, and that had to be worth something.

SGT Schlotzky came back to the truck and opened the door. He had walked over fifty  meters by this point. He was sweating fiercely and steaming up the air with stertorous breathing.

“Man, I don’t know how long this is gonna—what the hell are you guys doing?

“I told you to keep your K-pots on!”

E.J. and I grinned at each other. “Saw that one coming.”

“Put your helmets on now!,” Schlotzky bellowed. He was pumping sweat now, and badly red in the face. “Don’t make me tell you again!”

The private first class who was driving turned a little bit white, but E.J. and I were muffling our snickers like the pair of backseat truants we apparently had become. When you’re 40 years old and holding a rank often described as “full bird private,” you’re clearly in it neither for the money nor for the prestige. It’s a form of service to the broader community, sure—but that’s no reason not to savor the experience in all its glorious lunacy.

As SGT Schlotzky, still snorting like a rutting elk, made his way back out in front of our truck, we saw SFC MacDougall headed our way.

“Uh-oh,” said E.J..

“Yep, here it comes,” I said. We tried to bend our grins down into appropriate expressions of contrition as the sheet vinyl driver door slapped open and the bald, red, roaring face of the apocalypse pushed into view. Our driver cringed over between the seats.

“What the Hell is the matter with you idiots?,” Doog bawled. “Don’t you understand English? I told you to take your Kevlars off!

“Now. Take. Your. Kay. Pots. OFF!”

Even SGT Schlotzky heard him that time, but he stayed safely sheltered ahead of the truck with his helmet appropriately screwed in place. Since ground guides always wore a K-pot, he had safely transcended the discussion.

“Now that,” E.J. observed after Doog pulled his head out, “was a perfect army moment.”

———————-

Shoulders hunched, fists swinging at his sides and brick chin stuck out like an icebreaker’s prow, Sergeant First Class Nolan strode onto the loading dock with an agenda.

“Gimme a private!,” he bellowed.

As for myself, I had no agenda. Nor did I have a job, an equipment issue, or a supervisor. I was just the new specialist, stooging around and watching to see how things ran. Out of a curiosity piqued by boredom, I did the unthinkable: stepped in front of an onrushing NCOand volunteered.

“What can I do for you, Sergeant?”

SFC Nolan wore a Ranger tab, a blonde pig bristle haircut and a chip on his shoulder that might have crushed King Kong. Five-ten or so, he probably went 240 intimidating pounds, and had a voice that could powder paving stones. Squinting through cold blue eyes, he looked me up and down like I was the new fish on his maximum security ward. Apparently, I failed muster.

“I don’t fuckin’ know you,” SFC Nolan grated, pushing That Chin even further out. “Who are you?”

“Specialist Lewis, Sergeant. If you need a hand—“

“No,” he cut me off. “I need a private.

“These soldiers need to learn to step up, or I’ll goddamn teach ‘em right goddamn now.”

Looking around, I wasn’t sure I saw any soldiers. There were a bunch of kids fluttering around the cages, decked out ever so preciously in Nomex tactical gloves and Camelbak water rigs because someone told them they were “Special Operations” so surely they must have been extra “special.” I saw part-timers and “pre-Bs,” collegians and adventurers, fakes and wannabes, girls and blobs and a couple old retreads like me. Near as I could tell, there wasn’t a single soldier on view.

There sure as hell was a sergeant, though.

————————-

Rolling north from Fort Lewis, HMMWV tires sizzling on the wet road, we were all whipped. E.J., who had torn his calf muscle huckling up a hillside on the night land nav course, drowsed in the back. PFC Monaghan had been up all night wandering around lost in the woods with his battle buddy so I took over the wheel, driving with my aching right hand snuggled warm in my lap.

Stuck behind SFC MacDougall’s vehicle in the convoy lineup, we droned along at 55 mph in the middle lane with the engine fan kicking in every few minutes. Every time the fan came on it reduced our developed horsepower by about 35 percent.

Sometime in the night, I must have banged my shooting paw on something and not noticed. It was vaguely purple and fairly well swollen, but I could work around it. Every few minutes I put it on the steering wheel next to its partner and rubbed gently. Monaghan woke up and looked over.

“Specialist, is your hand alright?”

“Little sore.”

“My mom does that. She has arthritis in her hands.”

I stuck my hand across the motor cover, balled it up and then stretched my fingers out straight. Monaghan winced when he heard the crunching sounds. I flexed it a few more times, feeling the crackle, and felt it with my other hand. Little swollen, maybe.

“Might be busted.”

“You should get that looked at.”

“Yeah, probably. Let’s get the vehicle turned in first.”

The passing lane was jammed up and people kept jumping through our convoy to escape the clog. Pretty soon, we crept up alongside the cork in the bottleneck.  A VW camper van was ostentatiously parked in the left lane with eyes locked front, moving too slowly to ever escape the Sixties. A continuous stream of Mercedes and Volvos northbound for Bellevue and Kirkland broke around it like whitewater over a smooth stone. Even our cow’s tail procession was in full overtake mode.

As we pulled even with the weaving, smoking microbus, I glanced over at it. It looked like a comfy way to hit the outdoors. I had spent my four hours of sleep zipped into a bag in the open in a driving rainstorm, praying to the god of Gore Tex to get me through the night without pneumonia. The peach fuzz beard riding shotgun locked eyes with me and thought to himself, “Fuck you, soldier boy.”

I didn’t have to guess that last part after he demonstrated his fluency in American Sign Language.

Hey, I thought.

“Hey!,” I said. “Wake up!

“Prepare to wave!”

“Hunh?” Smelly bodies stirred in the gray-green half-light inside our vehicle.

“Prepare to wave! On my mark, everybody wave at the van!” I slowed down until traffic parked in our taillights, and we dropped incrementally back toward the VW van.

“OK… on my mark… three, two, one, wave!”

Grinning and giggling, we all waggled our hands at the junior hippies like we were Boy Scouts on a parade float. We were guys out on an adventure, awash in strong sweat, flush with derring-do. We had guns and camouflage and a purpose for our expensive outdoor gear. We were way cooler than neo-hippies; it was not their time, but ours.

I felt my hand crunch, flexed it into a fist, and grinned wider.

———————–

I never got to know SFC Nolan before he deployed to Iraq as a detachment NCOIC. He spoke to me only one other time before he took his crew abroad, stomping into the drill hall as we loitered around, waiting on a formation.

“Lewis!”

“Yes, Sergeant?”

“How the fuck old are you, anyway?”

“Pushin’ forty, Sar’nt.”

“Damn,” he said, and shook his head. “You’re a better man than I am.”

I doubted that very much. A better man would have gotten soldiering out of his system at a much younger age. A better husband would not have been considering an overseas tour in a probably optional war.

A better soldier would have been drawing retirement pay by then.

Comments

  1. A better soldier would have been drawing retirement pay by then.

    Shit.

    A better soldier, perhaps. Not a better man.

    SGT Rose made you those beads in acknowledgement of that.

    Thanks for the laughter… and the lesson. I think I needed that.

  2. http://Brad%20Bangle says

    I loved “Nothing In Reserve”.

    Memories Of The Future in the 10/11 MC mag made me cry…as I wrote to the magazine, my kids apex late & turn in crisply…better than I ever could & you reminded me how happy that makes a man.

  3. Just checking in on old friends. Take care Jack.

  4. Take care yourself, Bill. How about checking in close to Christmas? We’ll be having the Fat Goose again this year.

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