Part 1 here

Part 2 here

My turn came to get on an airliner, a Northwest Orient 747. The commercial crew was gone, replaced by Air Force reservists. We had to lug our brand-new issue over with us, rifles and body armor and Alice packs and canteens and all. The bottom of the plane, where the luggage normally would go, was stocked with ordnance. We had so much crap that we were practically immobile in our seats. I couldn’t place my feet on the floor—my Alice pack was there. My knees were almost at eye level. I kept my rifle there for a while, then tried jamming it in between the seats.

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, Parker realized that we hadn’t been fed yet. “Chow?” he asked the Air Force reservist who sauntered by.

“You were supposed to have brought your own,” he said. “Don’t you soldiers carry MRE’s wherever you go?”

“Um, no,” Parker said. He looked panicked.

I was beginning to cramp up. I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t figure out how. I closed my eyes for a while, but that did nothing.

And Parker was going on about the chow, or lack thereof. Two, three hours of him complaining. It was disgusting.

“Will you shut the fuck up about the chow?” I shouted. He was making me hungry when I wanted to be nervous.

“Buzz, it’s just that—”

“I can’t stand it anymore! I’m at a breaking point! Breaking point!”

We landed in Rome. The Air Force reservist assured us that we’d be allowed off the plane to stretch while we refueled. He assured my buddy that there would be hot chow waiting for us on the ground. It was a lie. We weren’t allowed off the plane. Italian officials came aboard and spritzed us with cherry-scented bug spray.

“No hot chow?!” he squealed, pleading. “No hot chow!” The Army had failed him in its one basic task, and he couldn’t believe it.

This is what I remember.

I remember that I was on my back on a metal and green nylon cot in the medical aid station. I tried to cross my feet, and failed, and stared up at the tan canvas above my head. I had a broken leg, I remembered. I listened to the generator and the field air conditioner hum rhythmically. I felt the cold air rush in from a vent over my head, and felt the field dressing on my cheek where I’d cut myself. It had only taken three stitches to close up the wound. I’d been in-country for all of 24 hours, now.

The doctor who had sewn me up the night before sat down on the cot next to me. All the cots were empty save the two we occupied and a third occupied by a massive, sleeping soldier. There were twenty-five cots in there. The doctor aimed a good Marcus Welby smile at me. “I guess this isn’t how you wanted to spend the war,” he said gently. He was wearing a green surgeon’s smock and chocolate chip BDU pants and a pair of jogging sneakers.

“I should have gone to medical school,” I said.

The doctor laughed, then leaned close to me. “What the hell happened?” he asked excitedly, then glanced over his shoulder.

“You mean how did I break my leg?”

“Yeah, were you up near the front lines?” He couldn’t have been out of medical school for long. His face was unlined, not even tan.

“You ever get out of this tent, sir?” I asked him.

He sat upright and tapped his manicured nails on his leg. “Not really,” he said. “They don’t let us do much. We’re supposed to sit here and wait. They say that we’ll see enough action when the war starts.” He stopped talking, put his index finger up to his mouth. “Shh.”

I stopped breathing, and listened.

“Do you hear that? Jets. They fly over all the time now,” said the doctor, conspiratorially. I imagined him telling his grandkids about this, the greatest adventure of his entire life. By his geezerhood, he will have sweetened, or brutalized, this experience to such an extent that sitting out in the desert in an air-conditioned tent will sound thrilling.

A sonic boom, or a real one, shook the tent canvas.

“Ours or theirs?”

“Oh, ours, I think. We got our satellite dish set up for CNN as soon as we got here,” said the doctor, cocking his head a little to my right. He was fidgety.

“How long ago was that?”

“Um, a few days ago,” said the doctor. “We got up and running three days ago.”

“Atten-tion!” shouted a sergeant standing by the tent flap. He whipped it open, and brilliant sunlight poured in from the outside, blinding me for a moment. I blinked a few times, trying to get the tent back in focus.

“Are you the wounded soldier?” asked the person in front of me.

“Yes, sir,” I said, still blinded.

“Lay back down on the bunk, will you?”

I was sitting bolt upright.

I laid back down and looked up, my sight returning. It was General Taylor, a one-star, my former brigade commander from Germany. He was a short man, probably one of the shortest I’ve ever seen in uniform, other than a corporal I met while in basic training. He was stocky, too, stretching out his desert uniform like it was spandex. “Couldn’t you get this man a pair of pajamas?” he asked the doctor.

“He’s going to be sent to Landstuhl, Germany, sir. Today, sir, along with the sergeant with the kidney stones,” said the doctor, fidgeting some more.

The general took off his floppy-brimmed boonie hat with the one silver star affixed to it and set it down on the cot next to me. He knelt down, and whispered, “You know who I am, don’t you? I’m in your chain of command.”

“Yes, sir,” I whispered back. He was the big pain in the ass that I had to paint the steps for when I was back in Germany. Every time he visited, we would paint the barracks steps green for him a few days beforehand.

He continued, “I’m going to pin this medal on you.” And he produced a purple heart, pinched between two stubby fingers. I saw sweat shining like sequins in his tightly cut black hair. “All show business.”

“Yes, sir,” I replied.

“I was a private like you when I got my first one of these,” he said, resuming a normal tone of voice. Behind him were two captains. One was slightly taller than the general and the other was tall and gaunt, wearing a pair of black wraparound sunglasses with his boonie cap pulled down so I could barely see his face. A camera burdened his neck and he wore a armband, “PAO” printed in bold white letters. “Step in here, doc,” said the general. “Put your hand on his shoulder and look down at him.” The general turned to the PAO and said, “Are you ready, Phil?”

Phil took off his cap, revealing a thick white racing stripe above a sunburnt face. He aimed the camera over at us. “Ready, sir.”

The general pinned the medal on my chest, while Phil popped away with the camera. Flash ghosts floated in my eyes. “Got enough?” asked the general, who smelled like Aqua Velva mixed with wintergreen gum.

“Yes, sir,” said Phil.

“Let’s get out of here,” said the general. He picked up his hat and slapped it back on his head. The general was followed out of the tent by the two captains, while the sergeant, who had never left the tent flap, held it open for the general with one hand and saluted with the other. The general stopped just as he reached the tent flap, and turned toward me. “Good luck to you, son,” he said, then exited as quickly as possible.

The doctor’s hand was still on my shoulder. He watched the general leave, then removed it. “That doesn’t happen every day,” said the doctor, sitting back down across from me. “Now, where were we?”

I took the medal off and shoved it in my cargo pocket, next to a postcard from home that had somehow found me way out here in a place I wasn’t supposed to be. “I’m going to Germany?”

“Someone’s supposed to come by and pick you up,” he said. He picked his ear using the pinkie twist method. “Do you know how to play bridge?”

“No,” I said.

“That’s a shame,” he said, and got up and left.

The sergeant, who hadn’t said a word until now, piped up. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “I’m dying over here.”

“Kidney stones,” I said.

“What’s it to you?” he barked. He was a big man, and far more mobile than I was at that moment.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just trying to make conversation.”

We lay in the tent feeling vaguely guilty. I didn’t want to go to war, but here I was. And now I wouldn’t be in the war.

“So what happened to you, hero?” he asked.

“I slipped. That’s all,” I said.

“Slipped?”

“This guy kept talking to me, the whole flight over, about how we hadn’t had a damn thing to eat yet. He went on and on. He wouldn’t shut up about it. So after we landed, after this long-ass flight, I was hungrier than he was. I could have eaten the sun and moon.”

The sergeant got up and walked over. He sat down in the cot next to mine. He wanted desperately to hear this story, mainly, I think, because it was more pathetic than getting out of a war by means of kidney stones.

“I got off the flight and signed in to the 21st Repo Depot,” I continued. “And the first thing they pointed out to us was the mess hall. It was a GP medium tent, with smoke coming out of it. You could smell chili mac, and still it made me hungry. My mind had been warped by the long flight and the constant talk about lack of food. That’s my only excuse. They had us filling out all these forms, and there was the mess hall just sitting there. I raised my hand and asked if I could eat. Some sergeant says, ‘Sure, just as soon as you fill out these forms.’ And the forms were all the same Army nonsense that you always have to fill out. The Army is good and goddamned well aware of my hay fever. Why do I have to tell them about it over and over?

“So I went crazy sitting there. I stopped filling out the forms and stared over at the mess hall. I was covered head-to-toe in equipment, by the way. I had more equipment on me than in any time in my life. My M16 was hanging off my arm by the sling like a woman’s purse. I had my kevlar on my head and an Alice pack on my back. Canteen, bandages, compass. Everything but ammo. They never give you that until the last minute, do they?”

“They sure don’t,” the sergeant said. I found out later that he worked in ordnance.

“So I’m freaked-out hungry and ready to try anything. I stood up, lurched from one side to the other to build up momentum, and then ran for the mess hall. I was sure someone was following me, was going to tackle me before I could grab a hot plate of chow. I flew into the mess hall, tried to come to a halt, and my feet came swinging out in front of me like I was on a swing-set. I hung in the air for a moment. Then I slammed down.”

The sergeant laughed in great big ha-ha’s, slapping his knee for emphasis.

When he gained some control over himself, I continued: “I realized that the floor was made out of discarded wooden pallets and that it was slick with mess hall gunk, a thousand spilled meals.”

“You flew up in the air!” hooted the sergeant. He laughed some more. I didn’t feel bad about the laughter. I was glad to be of service.

I was going home and it felt okay.

Like to read about the Army in the 1980’s? In Europe? Gosh, who doesn’t! Try out Tales of the Peacetime Army. It’s a book!

John Sheppard served four years in the United States Army as an Illustrator (MOS 81E). He was honorably discharged after Gulf War I. He went on to receive an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida, where he studied under Padgett Powell, Marjorie Sandor and Harry Crews. He has worked as a grill cook, web site designer, junk mail writer, small town newspaper editor and civil servant. He lives in Chicago.

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