A Jeep To Quang Tri

by William Upton

by William Upton

Fear lent wings to his feet. —Virgil

     I have three memories of Quang Tri, Vietnam. One, it was the northernmost place I flew to

in Vietnam, about six clicks from the North Vietnam border. Two, I was there less than ten minutes.

Three, it scared the crap out of me.

     The day we flew to Quang Tri, you could have fried an egg on my forehead, it was that hot.

And it didn’t matter if I was in the shade or in the direct sun. If I had been a wet sponge and

somebody squeezed me I couldn’t have sweated more. To make matters worse, the olive-green

aluminum of the Caribou soaked up the sun turning the cabin and cockpit into a giant green

furnace. The only refuge was 14,000 feet straight up, where the temperature averaged 50 degrees.

     We had a brief respite from the heat on the twenty minute flight from Vung Tau to Saigon

where we picked up our cargo. Lethargy nearly overcame me as I backed a Jeep and trailer into the

oven-like body of the Caribou. After strapping it down and double checking the plane for possible

problems, Gray Tiger ‘99 was ready to go.

“Where we headed?” I asked Captain Bracey.

“A small dirt strip near Quang Tri,” he told me. “You’ll enjoy this one, if you don’t mind

getting sandblasted.”

“Sandblasted?”

“We’re gonna fly in, drop the Jeep, and boogie out of there. It’s a dirt strip with more VC

than flies on a dog turd. Both engines stay running all the time. Sand, dust, gravel and shit from the prop

wash will eat you up back there.”

“So, what will you and Mr. Stephens do while I’m eating sand?” I asked.

“Sip margaritas in the cockpit until you give the high sign. Seriously though, you won’t have much

time to unload that Jeep.”

“You wouldn’t leave without me, would you?” I asked.

Captain Bracey avoided eye contact. “Not unless we had to,” he said.

     We flew out of Saigon at nine in the morning for the four-hour flight. I laid back on the troop seats

and put my mind to other things. I listened to Captain Bracey and Mr. Stephens as they bantered over the

intercom. I genuinely liked them. They had become my friends. I dozed off thinking of Myra Faye back

home and the last night we had spent together.

     We were in the back seat of my ‘50 Dodge coupe and making out hot and heavy. Her hands had just

found the zipper in my levis. . .

Click, click. “Wake up, Bill,” Captain Bracey said on the intercom. “It’s crap your pants time. We’re

on approach to Quang Tri. Remember, at the end of the runway we’ll turn around and stop. Engines

running. Untie and off-load that Jeep. ASAP!”

“Roger, sir,” I said.

“When you got it off, jump your ass back on board. Stay in contact. When you give the word, we’re

outta here. Move fast. You got that?”

“Got it, sir. You call someone to get the Jeep?”

“No can do,” Captain Bracey came back. “Mandatory radio silence.”

“If no one’s there?” I asked.

“Leave it and let’s get the hell out.”

“Got it,” I said.

     Through rear portholes, I checked the main landing gear for down and locked position. I went back

to my regular seat in the front, sat down, fastened my seat belt and waited. Through a porthole on the

starboard side, I saw the fiery streaks of tracer rounds as they whizzed by.

“Jesus. You see those tracers, Captain?” I asked

“Yeah! Looks hot down there! Got your flak jacket on?”

“I do now, and I’m sitting on the other one,” I said.

“Good man. Those tracers might burn you a new asshole.” I heard him chuckle nervously. “Thanks

again for the steel butt plates you put under our seat cushions.”

“Roger that, sir,” I said. I watched out the portholes for VC. A flash of light. Another tracer. VC, for

sure. I looked out a different port. A puff of smoke. Napalm? Maybe. I pulled my flak jacket tight. All I could

think of was getting to the ground. Damned slow plane. Slow made an easy target to follow. Mother had

been right. You could get shot out of the air.

     I looked out a porthole over my left shoulder. Still, a couple thousand feet off the ground. Another

tracer. VC target practice.

     The Caribou seesawed left-right, up-down as it fought the rising hot air currents. Captain Bracey

throttled the engines back to slow the plane even more. The nose dipped. I wanted to say, No! Speed up! Let’s

get on ground, drop that damned Jeep and get the hell out of there!

     I turned against the pull of my extra-tight seat belt to look over my right shoulder. Movement below.

A flash. More VC? Ground fire? Another tracer? Shit, I couldn’t tell. The jungle still lay a thousand feet

below. Did Quang Tri have a runway? Would we crash into the trees? I pressed my mike switch and, trying to

sound calm, asked Captain Bracey, “Everything okay, Captain?”

     Click-Click. He doubled clicked his mike as an affirmative reply. I wished he would have talked. I

looked into the cockpit. From the back, Captain Bracey appeared intense, concentrated. Mr. Stephens was

adjusting a dial on the instrument console.

     I watched as Captain Bracey pushed the throttle levers forward, then eased them back, the engines

screaming, then groaning. Mr. Stephens pulled the flap control lever back. Hydraulic pumps whined, driving

the flaps lower, slowing us even more. We were flying in slow motion. I felt like a plastic duck at a county fair

waiting for some country sharpshooter to draw a bead. An airplane sized bulls eye.

     Finally, I saw the straight border of the jungle clearing and the edge of the yellow, primitive runway

in front of us. I heard a Whap! Thunk! at the rear of the plane.

“Holy shit, sir, We’ve been hit.”

“You okay, Bill?” Mr. Stephens asked.

“I’m okay. Scared the crap out of me. Tail section took a round or two. Controls okay?”

He rocked the plane side to side. “Feels good,” Captain Bracey said.

     Seconds later the main landing gear touched the dirt strip, sending up a cloud of yellow dust. An

eternity later, the nosewheel touched down. I fumbled for my seat belt buckle. I couldn’t find it. It had

worked its way up under my flak jacket. My hands tore at the snaps holding the jacket together. I found the

buckle, flipped it open, and stood.

     The plane sped like a drag racer toward the end of the airstrip. I jumped to the Jeep trailer and bent

down to undo the tie-down strap. Damn. The handle was on the other side. I scrambled across the cargo

deck. As I pulled the strap over the trailer axle, it caught on something. Nothing was going right. We’d never

make it out of here. I whipped the strap. Up and down. Up and down. It flew loose. I hustled to the front of

the Jeep.Time had slowed to a near stop. I couldn’t open the front strap’s ratchet handle. My fingers

disobeyed orders from my brain. The front tie-down finally let go. Even with my fumbling, I had worked too

fast. As Captain Bracey reversed the props to help stop the Caribou, the Jeep rocked backwards, rolling

slowly toward the cockpit. Damn! Had I remembered to set the parking brake? I jumped in the Jeep and

pushed the brake pedal down with both feet as hard as I could. I pulled the parking brake handle. The Jeep

swayed in opposite motion to the Caribou, but stopped moving.

     When I heard the props return to normal I ran to open the loading doors at the rear of the Caribou

and pushed the toggle switch to raise the cargo door up and into the tail section. Another switch forced the

ramp door down. Their small electric motors whined in unison.

“We’re there, Chief,” Mr. Stephens yelled. “As soon as I say, get that damned Jeep off.”

“Roger, sir.” From where I stood, at the open cargo door, I could look out without being seen. I saw

nothing but the wall of vegetation that formed the perimeter of the landing strip. We had, it seemed, landed

inside a huge square opening in a green salad.

     Burnt avgas from the Caribou’s engines now replaced the smell of fresh sweat that oozed from my

body. My jungle fatigue jacket stuck to my skin. The plane lurched to a stop and Captain Bracey pivoted her

on the port landing gear to turn her around. The starboard engine roared, and the prop spun, slapping the air

and throwing up a sandstorm of yellow dust. We stopped. The engines settled into a coughing rhythm.

“Go, Bill,” Mr. Stephens shouted.

     I dragged the ramps down and put them in place. Rumbling engine exhaust noise dulled the usual

clank of metal on metal. Particles of sand driven by fast turning propellers stung my face and splatted on my

fatigues. I tried to forget the Viet Cong.

“Hold her steady, Captain, the ramps are on the ground.”

“Roger,” Captain Bracey said. “Get a move on.”

“I’m unhooking the intercom long enough to get this Jeep out,” I told him.

“Okay, Bill, get it done.”

     I jumped into the Jeep. Sunlight through the cockpit window shone on the Jeep’s instrument panel.

The glare blinded me. Was that starter switch on the left or right of the instrument cluster? Sweat beaded on

my hand and my fingers left wet streaks on control knobs as I groped. Moments passed before I found the

switch and flicked it to start. The engine turned over and over and over. Panic!

     I had done this a hundred times before and the engine had always started right away. I tried to

remember the sequence for starting. Hit starter switch, pump gas pedal. I smelled raw gas. Carb flooded. I

pushed the accelerator hard to the floor. Engine turning. It coughed. Blue smoke. Engine started. Rough,

now smoother. I pulled the gearshift to first position. G-G-G-Grind. Stupid. Push the clutch pedal down.

First gear. Ease the clutch. The Jeep crept forward. Forward, tilt, down, off.

     A figure ran from the dense jungle, handgun ready. Viet Cong! Shit! My gun was on the plane. I

froze. No, too tall to be VC. Thank God! It was a camouflaged Green Beret. I exhaled in relief.

He looked at me, “Thanks, guy.” His hand grabbed the edge of my flak jacket and pulled my

stunned, unmoving body out of the Jeep. “Sorry,” he said. “In a hurry.” He stepped into the Jeep, roared off,

and disappeared into the foliage.

     I tossed the ramps into the cargo bay. They left huge gouges in the wood decking. I didn’t care. I

jumped into the plane and closed the ramp door. The cargo door was still up, no matter. I sat down and

hooked in my headset. Blat-blat-blat. Small arms fire.

“Ready, sir. Let’s get the hell out of here.” My uniform dripped with sweat. I fastened my seat belt.

“You got it,” Captain Bracey said. I watched his hand push the throttles as far forward as he could.

     The twin engines screamed and strained as the props cut through the hot, heavy air. The plane crept forward

before picking up speed. It shook and shuddered as if trying to jump off the ground. From where I sat in the

back of the plane, I watched through the open cargo door for VC. The flak jacket I usually sat on had slid off

my regular seat up front. It lay on the floor now. Fifteen feet away. I wondered what it would feel like to get

shot in the butt.

     Through the port across from me I watched the main gear tires roll. One revolution, two

revolutions. Three, four, five, faster, faster. We sped toward the end of the runway until that momentary

feeling of weightlessness as we lifted off. Inertia tugged the untied loading ramps back to the ramp door

much like the dead mayor’s coffin on my first mission. Screw it, if they slid out, that was just too bad. The

jungle shrank behind us. We climbed. Higher and higher. The hydraulic pumps groaned once again as the

flaps rose. Then the landing gear doors closed with a soft thud.

“Gear up, sir.”

“Thanks, Chief, you done good.”

“I thought we’d never get out of there,” I said.

“It took us thirty seconds from power up to wheels up,” Mr. Stephens announced. “Just three

minutes from landing to takeoff.”

“Any more tracers, Captain?” I asked.

“Didn’t see any,” Captain Bracey said. “The VC must’ve wanted that Jeep more than they wanted

us.”

     When I was able to stand, I went back to the tail section, dropped the cargo door into place and

looked up. I saw a small hole on the tail’s port side and a larger ragged hole high on the starboard side. A

pointed piece of sheet metal flapped in the upper opening. No cables or control rods had been damaged. We

seemed to be all right.

     I resumed my place at the front of the Caribou. “No big deal on that hit,” I told both pilots. “Only

sheet metal work.”

“Great, Bill, How you doin’?” Captain Bracey asked.

“I’m okay, ‘cept for the smell.”

“What smell?” Mr. Stephens asked.

“I think I crapped my pants,” I said.

“Me too,” said Mr. Stephens.

“Me too,” said Captain Bracey. “Anyway, good job.

“Roger that, Captain,” I said.

On the way back to Vung Tau, I wrote home:

Dear Mother and all,

I thought I’d write before you cut me out of your will. Not

much going on here, and boy, is it hot. Only 150 days to go and

I’ll be home. I’ve changed my allotment to $250 each payday.

By the way, have you heard from Myra Faye recently? Would you

call and find out if she’s all right?

We flew to Quang Tri today. That’s about as far north as

you can go in South Vietnam. We delivered a Jeep. No big deal.

I’ll tell you about it when I get home. Well, I just wanted you to

know that I’m still kicking. I’ll write again as soon as I can.

Your Loving Son, Bill

****

 In 1963 at age 17, Vietnam veteran, William R. “Bill” Upton, enlisted in the U.S. Army. During his five-year military stint, Bill completed his high school training and was awarded a GED certificate.  He served at many duty stations including one year in Korea and another year as a deHavilland Caribou crew chief in Vietnam. For his wartime service he was awarded the Air Medal and presented a Certificate of Achievement by General Westmoreland. He left the Army as a Sergeant E-5.
Bill, a retired businessman, now dabbles in writing and editing. After leaving the Army he studied at Linn Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon and later matriculated at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon where he received his baccalaureate degree in Liberal Studies Cum Laude.  His written works have  been published in literary journals and magazines. His memoir, Pizza & Mortars: Ba-muoi-ba and Bodybags was published by Xlibris Corporation, the publish on demand division of Random House.
 He is married to artist/retired educator Susan Upton.  They live full-time in Sarasota, Florida and spend much free time with children and grandchildren in Oregon and North Carolina.

 

COL Darron L. Wright Award Winners

The 2019 Wright Prize results are here. Thanks to everyone who submitted his or her work. They were all done with care and effort and honesty. We received many prose submissions. Some were from regular contributors and some from new voices. The same goes for the poetry submissions. The finalists for the prose category are: first place, William Upton’s “A Jeep to Quang Tri,” second place, Brian Kerg’s “American Spirit,” and third place, Travis Klempan’s “Talisman.” The finalists for the poetry category are: first place, Eric Chandler’s “How Could You Do That,” second place, Sarah Maples’s “Good Soldier,” and third place, Randy Brown’s “Robert Olen Butler Wants Nachos.”

 

Good Soldier

By Sarah Maples

By Sarah Maples

You have to call them sir

 

You have to call them sir

 

When they order you to drop

And give them twenty

 

When they tell the men

Not to be pussies

 

When they yell

Hey, female!

 

You have to call them sir

 

When they put you on duty

For the fifth weekend in a row

 

When they refuse

To look you in the eye

 

When they believe you can’t do it

Because you’re a woman

 

You have to call them sir

 

When they call you a disgrace

Because you have tits in uniform

 

When they snicker about how you’re

A bitch, a slut, a dyke

 

When they say

No one is going to rescue

A fat girl from the battlefield

 

You have to call them sir

 

When they promise to be discreet

If you can ignore their wives

 

When they’re drunk and

They say: don’t tell

 

When you report it,

But they don’t want to ruin his career

 

You have to call them sir

 

Only, you don’t-

 

Have to call them sir.

You only think you do.

****

Sarah Maples is a former Air Force intelligence officer and Afghanistan veteran. In her post-military career, she has held a variety of positions, including Director, National Security and Foreign Affairs for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Sarah is currently pursuing a Master’s in Publishing through George Washington University. She also holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Fairleigh Dickinson University, a Master’s in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University, and a B.A. in German and Russian from Tulane University. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Task & Purpose, Line of Advance, Rally Point, and on her veterans resource blog, After the DD-214.

Robert Olen Butler Wants Nachos

by Randy Brown

by Randy Brown

Author of 18 books

Pulitzer Prize-winner

Guggenheim fellow

Vietnam War veteran

 

tells the Air Force cadets

that Buddhists have it figured out:

We are all creatures of desire.

 

Last night at this time

I stood next to him in line at Hap’s Lounge,

so I feel qualified to say at least this much:

 

At one point in his life

all Robert Olen Butler wanted

was some unbroken, circular tortilla chips.

 

****

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. A 20-year veteran with a previous overseas deployment, he subsequently authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015). His poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely in literary print and on-line publications, including Stone Canoe, Drunken Boat, F(r)iction, and So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. As “Charlie Sherpa,” he blogs about citizen-soldier culture at www.redbullrising.com, and about military-themed writing at www.aimingcircle.com.

How Could You Do That?

 

By Eric Chandler

By Eric Chandler

It’s a Christmas party.

Everybody is pretty lubed up.

 

I just read your article, he says.

 

(Here we go.)

 

I probably shouldn’t,

but I’m going to ask you a question:

How could you do that?

 

Well, the story was about how I

didn’t

shoot women and children.

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah, 

but how could you do that?

 

(The story included

that

but it wasn’t the point.)

 

I said,

no sane person wants to do

that.

Law of Armed Conflict.

Enemy combatants.

Et cetera.

 

Too late,

I know what I’d say now:

I have a question for you.

If you didn’t like

that

maybe you should’ve done something about

that

other than asking me:

How could you do

(ew, gross)

that

 

Since you insist:

Because you sent me.

 

I was an extension of the will of the people.

You sent me.

The right bumper sticker on your car isn’t enough.

You sent me.

You don’t get to dismiss me by thanking me.

You sent me.

You don’t get to forgive your own sins.

You sent me.

You are not absolved.

You sent me.

By commission or omission.

You sent me.

Last I checked, it was

We the People.

 

After you brush your teeth tomorrow,

put your face up to the mirror

and ask,

 

How could you do that?

 

****

Eric Chandler is the author of Hugging This Rock: Poems of Earth & Sky, Love & War (Middle West Press, 2017). Chandler directed the Bridging the Gap writing workshop in Duluth, Minnesota in June, 2018 that addressed the civil-military divide. His writing has appeared in Northern WildsGrey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick, Flying Magazine, Sleet Magazine, The Thunderbird Review, O-Dark-Thirty, Columbia Journal and The Deadly Writers Patrol. He’s also a USAF veteran who served in the active duty and the Minnesota Air National Guard. He flew 145 combat missions and over 3000 hours in the F-16. He retired in 2013 as a lieutenant colonel. He’s a member of Lake Superior Writers, the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and the Military Writers Guild. Eric is a husband, father, and pilot who cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth, Minnesota.

Talisman

by Travis Klempan

by Travis Klempan

27 March 2007

“That Harper Lee,” Mack said, “is full of shit.”

A group of green Army five-ton trucks–three functional vehicles perched around a fourth with its hood open–had disgorged the few dozen members of Second Platoon, Charlie Company, First Battalion, Thirty-Third Infantry Regiment into a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. The soldiers waited with varying degrees of patience in the rising Georgia sun.

Sergeant John Mackenzie watched as several men hovered around the engine compartment of the broken truck. Two soldiers from Second Platoon were shade tree mechanics and had offered the Base Motor Pool contractor their pointed and conflicting opinions on the source of trouble. A fourth man–a local on his way to work, bib overalls and trucker hat hinting at his profession–had pulled over and spat a stream of tobacco onto the asphalt, proposing to fix the truck for free so long as they killed him some ragheads when they got where they was going even if they couldn’t say where he understood.

Mackenzie smirked. He’d written that phrase down, though he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

A fifth man stood slightly apart from the cluster, a cell phone pressed to his ear ever since they’d pulled over. An hour gone by and the truck still sat useless. Mack turned from the vehicles back to the task at hand.

“How’s that now?” Staff Sergeant Julius Atwood craned his head as he chucked a pebble at a near-full green dumpster.

“Shouldn’t you be over helping the lieutenant?” Mack smiled.

Atwood shrugged and lobbed another pebble at the trash heap. “I told him. Said he should just requisition us a school bus from Motor Pool, get our happy asses back on the trail. Have ourselves a more comfortable ride that way, too.” He looked over at the dead truck. “LT said Kujo was real keen on the battalion all rolling out together, World War II-style, all jumping off the five-tons and running around and rendezvousing at the airfield.” He laughed. “That man’s been watching too much Band of Brothers.”

“Rendezvous? Airfield? He really say all that, Gus?” Mackenzie held a small rock in his hand but didn’t throw it.

Atwood shrugged again. “Who? Lieutenant Cruz? Colonel Kujo? I offered my two cents. Give him another ten minutes and if we don’t got a working truck I’ll offer another two cents, slight more forceful even.” He smiled. “Anyway, Knife, what’d you say about Harper Who?”

Mackenzie looked at the overflowing dumpster. A small gang of mockingbirds picked through the trash–greasy wrappers, coffee cups, half-eaten remains from yesterday’s business–and scattered the debris onto the asphalt. Atwood had been throwing pebbles for the past few minutes, Mack and the birds his only audience. Ping and the birds went flying; few seconds later they returned. Not much of a game, but both men knew that killing time was a skill the Army didn’t teach in Basic Training, least not outright.

Mackenzie scanned the parking lot. Small knots of soldiers were killing time, or trying to. The trick, he’d figured years back, was to engage in something requiring a minimum of physical and mental effort without sacrificing the last shreds of readiness. Playing cards was too mentally demanding; smoking not demanding enough. You could combine activities–dip tobacco and try to spit at something, for instance. Toes of other men’s boots were good targets. Bugs in motion offered a challenge. Napping defeated the whole purpose, and it was way too early in the deployment to crack open a book.

He glanced down at his rucksack, saw the rectangular blocks of stories pressing against the green fabric. He and Atwood had set their rucks up against concrete parking blocks as soon as Lieutenant Cruz had declined Atwood’s advice. The LT was the LT, and the platoon sergeant was the platoon sergeant, and Sergeant Mackenzie was Mack the Knife, but by the end of the day they’d all get to the airport one way or another.

Airfield, whatever. Mackenzie smiled. Kujo had a hard-on for all that Patton-shit.

“Harper Lee, man. You actually are from the South, right? You did go to a school once, didn’t you? She wrote To Kill a Mockingbird,” he said, rolling the pebbles in his hand like dice. “You know–classic of American literature? Wrote a classic, said she was done? Anyway, she says in it, talks about how killing a mockingbird’s a sin, because all they do is sing their hearts out.” He pointed at the dumpster. “All I seen them do is rat-fuck garbage cans looking for leftovers.”

Atwood laughed, a short soft bark. “Just remember to be easy with that swearing. You know the LT is keen on polite language.”

Mackenzie nodded. “Yeah, figure he’s gotta have some sort of tic to define him. Leadership and all that.”

Atwood stopped throwing rocks. They turned and watched the lieutenant, cell phone pressed to his ear and pacing, then turned back to the dumpster. Atwood dropped the pebbles from his hand and wiped his palms together.

“Birds just getting their breakfast, right?”

Mackenzie shrugged.

Atwood grinned and looked directly in Mack’s face. “C’mon Knife, what’re they saying?” His head remained still but his eyes darted over to the dumpster.

Mackenzie sighed. “I told you. It don’t work like that.”

A young man walked up and stopped a few feet short. “Staff Sergeant Atwood?”

“What is it, Nuñez?”

Private Nuñez rubbed his hands on his trousers. “Well, Sergeant, me and some of the guys, we were wondering if you knew when we’re getting outta here.”

Atwood smiled and Mackenzie sensed what was coming. He looked at his feet.

“Yeah? Why’s that? You fellas got appointments to keep?”

“Uh, no, Sergeant, we just—”

“You getting bored? Want me to think up something y’all can do to kill time?”

“Not really, Sarge, I—”

“Think the rest of the battalion gonna leave us behind? They get to Iraq before we do, win the war without us? Think we’ll miss the victory parade they gonna throw?”

Mackenzie ducked his chin to his chest to hide his smile.

“No, Sarge, we were just wondering—”

“Wondering is for officers, Nuñez,” Atwood said. Mack looked up. Atwood played his role better than anyone else in the battalion. Tough, strict, but no voice for malice. “The LT’s got his LT-stuff to do, us sergeants got our sergeant-stuff to do, and you privates have your private-stuff to do, and sometimes we all have the same thing to do, and that’s just Hurry Up and Wait. Hooah?”

Nuñez waited for a moment and nodded. “Hooah, Sarge.” He turned, walked to a group of soldiers standing at the edge of the lot.

Mackenzie tossed a rock but not at the dumpster. “Hurry Up and Wait.” He smiled. “Closest thing to a commandment I think I can believe in.”

Atwood looked at him, then at Nuñez and the others and pointed. “Birthplace of rumors right there, all them privates in one place,” he said. “Course that’s a commandment. Got more truth than anything else in this line of work.”

Hurry Up and Wait. Mackenzie considered the inevitability and implacability of the maxim, the combination of dread resignation and heart-pounding anticipation bound up in the four words. He wondered if it had ever been cliché or instead been born with truth in its teeth.

“You think the Minutemen had to Hurry Up and Wait before they saw the whites of the British eyes?” Atwood asked.

Mackenzie nodded. “Sure as shit the Spartans Hurried Up and Waited on the Persians.” He laughed.

“Hell, even cavemen probably had grunts, say the same thing, when they were waiting on a brontosaurus or whatever.” Atwood glanced at Mack, who kept silent. “Ugh.”

A slow-burning truism at once reassuring in its consistency and upsetting in its indifference to the plight of mortals. No matter the meticulousness of the planning–and often in some perversely inverse correlation to the amount of forethought–something could, always did go wrong.

The key was in knowing that, and anticipating how to kill the time once it arrived.

Mack finally laughed.

“What?”

He turned to Atwood. “What if Nuñez were right, Gus? What if the battalion did end up leaving us behind?”

Atwood shook his head and frowned. A couple hours wasted on the asphalt in Georgia could translate into a day lost by the time they changed planes in Germany, could cascade into a week behind in Kuwait, could mean a whole month gone before they caught up to the battalion in Irbil.

“Fat chance that happens,” Atwood said, a smile breaking through.

“Yeah, but think, they could get there so far ahead of us they might actually win the war before we arrive.”

“Even fatter chance that happens.” Atwood stooped and picked up a pebble. “Without Second Platoon Charlie around they’d be lost.” He grinned, white teeth flashing against his skin. “Even with us, how’s anyone gonna win this one?” He tossed the rock, skipping it off the asphalt, into the side of the dumpster. “This ain’t one for winning.”

“Then what’s it for?”

Atwood locked eyes with Mackenzie. “You know. Surviving. Keep the men alive best we can, get us all back one piece best we can.” He turned to the birds. “Then we all go back to what we do, what comes natural. Nuñez, the LT, you, me, Colonel Kujo, the Iraqis, them mockingbirds—” He cut himself off with sudden laughter. “What you figure they ate before we invented dumpsters?”

Mackenzie laughed along with Atwood. “I read that coyotes are one of the only animals that did better once white men closed the frontier. Never died off, learned to eat garbage and poodles and they just kept multiplying.”

Atwood nodded. “Makes sense it wouldn’t be something majestic, like a buffalo. A bear. Had to be coyotes.”

“Coyotes are okay. They’re survivors.”

Atwood nodded. “Couple more years there won’t be nothing left but coyotes and mockingbirds. Rats, too. Cockroaches and pigeons.”

“Won’t that make for a zoo?”

The men turned their heads in unison at the sound of an engine coughing to life.

“Hell of a zoo,” Atwood said, dropping his handful of rocks.

 

“Fuck you guys.”

“C’mon, Nuñez, they don’t care.” Alphabet closed his eyes and leaned back as the truck bounced down the Georgia highway, their bodies rocking up and down.

Nuñez shook his head. “Now I look like a whiny bitch.”

“And yet, you’re still whining.” Stevenson grinned from across the truck.

“Like I got all the questions.”

Alphabet laughed. “No sweat. Not like they got all the answers.”

Greeble elbowed Nuñez. “But you listen to them just the same, hear?” His face loomed close behind the jab and Nuñez recoiled from his acne and lisp. The bodies crammed in to the back of the truck made pulling away difficult.

“Whatever man, so they been over there and come back couple of times. Lots of guys been over there and come back.” He shifted in his seat. “I get Atwood, he’s the platoon sergeant. What’s Sergeant Mackenzie supposed to be? No other platoon’s got an extra sergeant just floating around.”

“He’s a fucking expert’s what he is,” Alphabet said, dropping his smile. “One of the smartest guys in the battalion. He don’t say much but it’s worth hearing.”

“What he says? He’s always spouting off some weird voodoo hippie bullshit, Buddhist riddles. Like he talks to birds and shit. I don’t understand him half the time.”

“Well, the half you do understand, you best follow.” Cristobal, one of the Team Leaders, a two-time deployer, leaned in. Alphabet was also a Team Leader but only had one deployment. “And it ain’t Buddhist riddles. Man’s actually a Buddhist, I hear.”

Greeble smirked. “The hell? Ain’t Buddhists supposed to be pacifists?”

Cristobal shrugged and leaned back. “I heard he’s never fired his weapon, except at the range.”

Nuñez smiled, baring his teeth. “How’s he get away with that?”

Cristobal shrugged. “I heard he was just a dumb private in 2003, same as you dopes now, when his whole squad got wiped out going over The Berm. Hooked up with some guys from Third ID, tagged along for the Thunder Run. In ‘05 he led his squad through the Mother of All Firefights in Ramadi, brought all twelve guys back. Did it all without discharging his weapon once.”

Greeble chuckled. “Yeah, but don’t they call him The Knife because—”

Cristobal cut him off with a look. “You wanna know, you ask him. Don’t ask me.”

Stevenson nodded along. “Atwood’s even crazier, see? During the invasion, he went head to head with a Republican Guard tank platoon in a Bradley. Somehow killed three tanks and sent the rest running. Came out of that one with all his nuts intact. He was there two years ago in Fallujah when shit got real bad, got his men through and back.”

Nuñez grunted. “Heroes, then.”

Stevenson shook his head. “Nope. Just really lucky fuckers.”

 

28 March 2007

“Wake up.”

“But we’ll never make it to the Super Bowl.”

“Jaime, wake up.”

Second Lieutenant Jaime Bustamante Cruz knocked the tray table with his knees, spilling books to the cabin floor. He blinked his eyes, dry and itchy, until he could focus on Tall Paul Berry seated next to him.

“I’m awake.” He glanced out the oval window, dim dawn spilling in. Vague green shapes and patterns below–land? How long asleep? “I’m awake.” He contorted his body, collected the papers, books at his feet. Tall Paul handed a photograph to Cruz.

“That your old man?”

Cruz looked at the makeshift bookmark. A young man stared back across years, eyes fierce. Buzz cut contrasted with a three-day beard. The man skinny, skinnier than Jaime ever saw him in real flesh. Then-First Lieutenant Tomás Esteban Bustamante wore faded green pants and a pale bandage over one ear. Rifle over his naked shoulders.

“Vietnam, ’66.” He yawned, stretched, reaching for the bottle of water in the seatback pocket. Empty. Recycled air, cool as a New Mexico morning but somehow drier. When had he finished the water? Last night? Over the ocean? What day was it anymore? “His second tour.” He shook his head and rubbed the heel of one hand in his eyes to clear the fuzz. “What’s up?”

“Man-zilla just stormed through here.” Cruz looked toward the voice coming over the top of the seat in front. Small Paul Capuano peered at Cruz, eyes and nose visible, hideous mustache–within regulations but still the target of the company commander’s ire–hidden behind the seat. “Captain was worked up. Something about rumors coming through the cockpit.”

Cruz looked at Tall Paul. “Rumors of what?”

Shrug. “Going to Irbil might be off the table. Going anywhere in Kurdistan is probably off the table. Evidently some battalions got caught up in the Surge, had to rotate early out of the east to cover a rougher-than-expected patch of Baghdad. Since the north is pretty quiet we may be getting sent to cover part of Diyala Province.”

Cruz leaned back into his seat. “Awful lot of detail for just one rumor.” Looked at the stacks of papers and books. Since reporting to First Battalion, Thirty-Third Infantry, he’d spent most of his time cramming. Printed out and marked up hundreds of pages of Lessons Learned, After-Action Reports, Significant Activities, State Department briefings; purchased a half-dozen books covering Islam, Sunnis and Shiites, the Kurds, the history of the Middle East, Iraq, Iran; days and nights of highlighting, note taking, rereading spent in preparation for a mission to Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous northern portion of Iraq, partnering with and training of the Kurdish security forces, the peshmerga.

Two weeks ago Major Eichelberger, the Executive Officer, described their assignment to the officers of the battalion as “glorified parade duty.”

The north was safer than the rest of the country, safer even than parts of America. It was far from the Sunni Triangle and Sadr City, from the sectarian fault lines running through the capital, outside the Iranian sphere of influence. The peshmerga had a reputation as capable, professional soldiers, unlike the New Iraqi Army and the Iraqi National Police. The north was mountainous, far greener, bordered Turkey and Iran…

Cruz consulted his notes. Did he know anything about Diyala Province?

“Buddy of mine from West Point deployed there last year,” Small Paul chirped from behind his seat. “Just started turning into a shit show when he rotated out. Mortars, rockets, IEDs, suicide bombers, standup firefights, snipers…” Cruz couldn’t tell if Small Paul was smiling or frowning.

“But no official word yet?” Cruz asked, his cottony mouth demanding a stewardess with a pitcher. Lieutenants Tall Paul and Small Paul had led First and Third Platoons respective for near three months, eternities next to Cruz and his six weeks. They had nicknames, mostly to distinguish the two Pauls in conversation, as did their platoons–First Platoon Fireballs and Third Platoon Death Dealers.

Cruz didn’t need a nickname for himself but wanted one for Second Platoon, something fierce but not profane. One thing he’d made clear to his platoon sergeant and the men was a low tolerance for profanity. They at least avoided the F-word in his presence. He was still working on the lesser curse words.

Tall Paul shook his head. “This all came down like two minutes ago.” He leaned into the aisle and looked toward the front of the plane. “Man-zilla seemed pretty amped, though. I’d imagine Kujo is even more worked up.”

“Man-zilla always seems amped,” Small Paul pointed out. “And Kujo—”

“Well,” Cruz said. “I’m going to see if my sergeants are awake. We must be getting close to Germany by now either way. No spreading rumors, least not in Second Platoon.” He stood and squeezed past Tall Paul. As he stepped into the aisle Cruz realized they’d whispered their entire conversation.

His sergeants appeared in the aisle as if summoned. Staff Sergeant Atwood, his platoon sergeant, and Sergeant Mackenzie, his…other sergeant. Still didn’t know what to make of the man. Something about him rubbed Cruz in a way not quite wrong, just uncomfortable.

“Diyala, sir?” Atwood usually ignored small talk so Cruz just nodded.

“Nothing official yet,” he admitted, lips pressed tight into a line. “I only just heard from the company commander.” Wasn’t exactly a lie, was it? “Until we get further word from Captain Manzanillo I think we just make sure the men are up and getting what they need. Smokes will have to wait until we’re on the ground in Germany. In the meantime, water, snacks, coffee.” He offered Atwood a smile. “Make sure you get some for yourself, Sergeant.”

Atwood nodded emphatically. “Damn right, sir.” He marched off in search of a stewardess and a pot.

Cruz looked at his extra sergeant. A cipher. Two combat deployments, alongside Atwood’s two, and a number of men in the platoon and the company and the battalion with multiple deployments, all while Cruz had been biding his time in college, summer internships and road trips and semesters spent cramming for engineering finals. At least the two Pauls were first-timers, too.

Cruz gave Mackenzie the same brief smile he’d given Atwood.

“This is your third time over, Sergeant?” Mackenzie nodded. “Well, third time’s the charm, right?”

Mack shrugged. “Or bad things come in threes, sir.” He nodded curtly and went off in Atwood’s wake.

“Fucking Mackenzie.” Cruz shook his head. “Damn Mackenzie.”

 

Lieutenant Colonel David Kujarowicz looked around the small room. It was the best the Exec could do on short notice, but this was not the sort of martial background Kujo had ever envisioned for leading men to war.

He kept his face impassive. He wondered what General Patton would’ve said if he’d had to make his grandiose speeches from an airport lounge. He grunted. Damn sure the man would’ve laughed at doing it in a German airport lounge, Kujo thought.

“Sir?” Major Eichelberger leaned close, his quiet voice even softer with anticipation. “The officers are all here, along with most of the NCOs.”

Kujo nodded. “Thanks, Karl.” He cracked his giant knuckles and tried to meet each man’s eyes. “Men.” He offered a tight grim smile. “Sure by now you’ve heard rumors. Since the cat’s out of the bag we might as well skin it. Kurdistan is out. We are headed to Diyala Province.” He waited, wondering if there’d be mutters or murmurs. There weren’t, so he continued. “As some of you may know, Diyala is to the east of Baghdad.” He nodded at that fact. “It’s also a lot more dangerous than Kurdistan, but all that really means is we’ll get more opportunities to do what our Army and our taxpayers have asked us to do–close with, engage, and destroy the enemy.” He would have paced the room but the combination of tight confines and numerous bodies prevented him. “Since the Army says we aren’t technically prepared for Diyala we’ll be getting an extra two days in Kuwait to requisition additional gear and acclimate the men.”

Kujo swore he heard a groan.

“We’ll be posted to Forward Operating Base Dillinger, co-located with the State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team, and a battalion slated to depart in a few months. Make sure you use that time to get with your counterparts and learn everything you can. When they leave, it’ll be just us for the next fifteen months.”

A hand rose in the back. Kujo squinted at Captain Manzanillo from Charlie Company. “Yes, what is it, Hector?”

The younger man leaned forward. “Fifteen, sir?”

Kujo nodded. “That’s the other change. We’ve got two additional months in Iraq to show what kind of professionals we really are. Sixty more days.” He glared around the room, daring anyone else to groan. “I know these are large and last-minute changes. Some of your men may complain. But the United States Government, the United States Army, and most importantly the American people have invested millions of dollars towards reconstituting, training, and equipping this battalion. We now have a chance to go out and make an immediate difference, not just sit on our duffs in Irbil training some militiamen to do traffic stops and baggage checks. Diyala will undoubtedly prove a much more difficult mission, perhaps more dangerous, but we all know Rome wasn’t burnt in a day.”

****

Travis Klempan was born and raised in Colorado, joined the Navy to see the world, and came home to the Mile High State. He has degrees from the U.S. Naval Academy, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and University of Colorado Law. His work has been published in Ash & Bones, Proximity magazine, and O-Dark-Thirty, among others. A short story based on his novel manuscript Have Snakes, Need Birds (“No Mere Storm”) received Honorable Mention in Flyway Journal’s Untold Stories Contest. He lives and works in Colorado.

 

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