Part 5 of Tales of the Peacetime Army

[Note: this is part 5 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.

And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]

FAKE WAR

After morning formation, filthy snowflakes whirling around our ankles, Socrates and I were volunteered to participate in REFORGER, a dress rehearsal for World War III. “You, and you,” the first sergeant said, pointing at us. “This is a job for assholes,” he explained. He said that only assholes volunteer for anything and that, this being an all-volunteer Army, we were all, therefore, assholes.

“I applaud your logic, Top,” I said.

“Don’t come crying to me if you don’t get your supplies,” Socrates said.

“What about you?” Gary asked me. “Any empty threats?”

I pretended to think for a moment. I thumbed the underside of my chin. “I got nothing,” I said. I was intrigued by the prospect of participating in full-scale fake war. I hadn’t played army much since coming into the Army. Though it would take me away from my daily lucubrations. Or so I thought.

The S-1 sergeant handed us our TDY orders to Rhein Ordnance Barracks, ROB, near Kaiserslautern, K-town, while we were standing out in the snow.

“I hate that fucking Gary,” Socrates said staring at his orders as if he could will them into non-existence. I shrugged. “Yeah. You would shrug, wouldn’t you?”

We went down to the basement and drew our weapons, twin M1911 pistols, minus any ammunition. We had yet to fire our joint weapon, the M60 machine gun. I had yet to touch it.

“Tomorrow’s Christmas,” Socrates said to me, locking up the arms room.

“I didn’t get you anything,” I said. “Sorry.”

“I got you something,” he said. He reached into his cargo pocket and produced a cigarette with a tiny red bow around the filter. “Just in case you want to take up the habit again.”

“My, how thoughtful,” I said. I put it in my breast pocket next to my black Skilcraft-U.S. Government pen. No soldier is complete without a pen to sign a form that may be shoved his way.

“You know why no one likes you?” Socrates asked me.

“Enlighten me,” I said.

“You’re not sufficiently grateful for the little gifts that come your way,” Socrates said.

“Noted,” I said.

We went upstairs to our respective quarters. I was currently sharing mine with a sergeant who insisted I call him Ranger, even though he’d never been a ranger. He didn’t even have jump wings. He was a drunk who carried with him a sickly sweet scent reminiscent of a rotting nectarine. “How’s tricks, specialist?” he asked me when I barged in on him. He had raided the Class VI store, apparently. Arrayed in front of him were four varieties of schnapps. “Just trying to get the lay of the land,” he said. He made an excessive display of arranging the bottles like they were chess pieces.

I put on my battle rattle.

“You going to war?” Ranger asked.

“Sort of, sergeant,” I said. “Reforger.”

“Oh, Reforger,” he said. He sipped daintily out of the peppermint schnapps bottle and wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He was shirtless and displaying a blue-capillaried roll of fat that couldn’t have been within Army fitness standards.

Socrates knocked on the door.

“Enter!” Ranger shouted. Socrates entered wearing his battle rattle. Ranger studied Socrates for a moment. “You going to war, specialist?” he asked him. Socrates had been promoted to Spec-4 a week after I had been.

“Sort of, sergeant,” Socrates said. “Reforger.”

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” Ranger said. “Is there an echo in here?”

We left him to his drinking and walked down to the motor pool carrying our A bag and B bag. The snow was accumulating into seeping drifts of dark slush.

“You know what I like about Germany?” Socrates asked me.

“No, what?”

“Nothing.”

You know what I liked about Germany? Everything.

“You have any family back stateside?” Socrates asked. It was the most personal question he’d ever put to me.

“Sure,” I said.

“Like who?”

We were chugging along in his assigned vehicle, a CUCVEE.

“A mother,” I said. “My father took off when I was two. The rumor was that he up and joined the Army. Why?”

“Just wondering,” Socrates said. “Figured you’d hatched from an egg in a lab somewhere.”

“I think this is our Ausfahrt,” Socrates said.

“You’re the one driving,” I said.

Ramstein Air Force Base was off to the right somewhere. ROB was to the left. We were to report to a fictional command, made up just for the exercise, called MACG, Military Assistance Command Germany.

Socrates exited the autobahn. We went through a gate manned by fake German soldiers, CSGs. They waved us through. “Give me one hundred thousand men just like those two and our problems with the Soviets would soon be over,” Socrates said.

The hippy-looking fake soldiers waved happily at us.

“Nazis,” Socrates said.

We reported in to Headquarters Company and were informed, by an annoyingly domineering company clerk, that we belonged to Sergeant First Class Clean, which wasn’t his real name. He suffered from alopecia universalis.

“Yeah, yeah, take a good look, you motherfuckers,” he told us when we got there. He took off his helmet, bowed down so we could get a good look. He stood up straight, put his helmet back on. “Agent fucking orange. Any questions? No? Good.”

He put us to work erecting GP small tents. We had two weeks to put up one hundred of them, a small tent city, to house elements of the thirty-third infantry brigade, separate, of the New York Army National Guard. Their job would be to protect MACG in case of fake Soviet attack, which we were expecting during the second week of the fake war in about a month.

So we constructed tents. The first one we erected for ourselves, slamming stakes into the frozen ground using a sledgehammer. The living space inside was about the same as a two-man quarters. We tossed our A bag and B bag in. Sergeant Clean gave us a stove, coal-burning, and two cots, one each, which we had to sign for.

A field PX opened a few days after we arrived. A crabby woman sold us chocolate bars. MACG’s public affairs office opened and soon churned out a mimeographed eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet of paper called, MACG OBSERVER. A spec-four female came around to interview us a week after the paper opened. We were taking a break from beating stakes into frozen ground.

“What’s so interesting about us?” Socrates asked her.

“Um,” she went.

“Officers,” I said. “That’s where the flavor is.”

“Flavor?” she went.

“Eating of the cheese. Cheese-eating,” Socrates said.

“Very funny,” she said. She took a hint and left.

“We could have been famous,” I said. “And you had to ruin it all.”

“John Wayne famous,” Socrates said. “Buzz Aldrin famous.”

We came up with a comedy bit during our tent building days. We would each pretend to be a sports commentator during the King Cola Drive-By Shooting of the Day brought to you by King Cola, the royalty of colas. Socrates was Al and I was Newt.

“Here comes the car,” Al went in his AFRTS voice.

“Looks like a 1970 Plymouth Road Runner,” Newt said.

“A classic of Detroit engineering, Al.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more, Newt. Look at all that chrome.”

“And the metallic purple paint job. Ooo, la, la!”

“The window is rolling down, Newt. What’s that I see?”

“Al, I believe that’s a pump-action Remington 870.”

“A beautiful piece of killing machinery, Newt.”

“I couldn’t agree more, Al. The victim is standing on the street corner completely unaware.”

“That’s testimony to the professionalism of the driver, Newt. Don’t try this at home! Ha, ha!”

“Indeed!”

“And here comes the shot!”

“What a beautiful blast! And the car speeds away!”

“Let’s see that again in slow motion.”

“That’s a nice tight shot pattern, Al. I’d have to give it a five point four.”

“Let’s see what our judges have to say. The judge from Guatemala gives it a five point two. The judge from South Africa gives it a five point seven. And the American judge gives it a perfect six!”

“That’s a five point six three.”

“Best score we’ve seen this year.”

“When you think of senseless killing, think of King Cola, the royalty of colas. Have a refreshing one today!”

“We’ll be right back.”

The exercise was ramping up. All day, cargo planes drifted in across the street, one after another, nose to tail, seemingly.

The National Guardsmen showed up two days before the official beginning of the exercise, transported from Ramstein AFB by Mercedes-Benz buses. They all wore old fatigue uniforms and steel pot helmets. They slapped each other on the arm and called each other by their first names. They were from upstate New York and were happy for the work now that manufacturing jobs had dried up. They moved into their tents. What an adventure! They were pleasant to be around.

ROB was a huge POMCUS site. Rows and rows of unused equipment sat rusting in the drab German winter. The National Guardsmen went over to look at it and to wolf-whistle at all the equipment they could not requisition.

“Jeez, Ted, what we could do with those armored personnel carriers back in New York. Slap a plow on the front and you could clear every street in town. Easy.”

“Darn it, Jim. Don’t tease me.”

Water buffaloes were brought in bearing potable water and water for bathing. I took my first shower in two weeks. It felt pretty good, even though I was outside in the 30-degree-F weather. AAFES set up a portable laundromat and I could finally wash my uniforms, which reeked like rotten grass clippings. At a field barbershop, I got a quick haircut.

The exercise finally began and the National Guardsmen left on foot, marching toward Objective Jackson as per their OPLAN.

“They have an objective,” Socrates said. “I’m jealous.”

“Do we finally get a day off?” I asked Sergeant Clean.

“Fuck no,” Sergeant Clean said. “Get in the back of that deuce-and-a-half. We got places to go, people to see.”

We had the entire back of the deuce to ourselves. Sergeant Clean drove jerkingly up on the autobahn past miles-long convoys of military vehicles filled with soldiers, all creeping haltingly along. A-10 warthogs leadenly hot-dogged through gray-dead skies. Helicopters puttered. I saw one dangling a palette of ammo at the end of a long cable, another carrying a jeep.

“I didn’t know there were this many soldiers in the Army,” Socrates said. We sat Indian style in the back, facing out, our helmets off. “You still have that smoke I gave you for Christmas?”

I pulled it out of my pocket. It was miraculously intact, though no longer in mint condition. “Here you go, buddy,” I said.

“Thanks, pal,” he said. He lit it up and smoked it to the filter. “Tastes like Dial soap.” He flicked the filter out onto the autobahn.

Our objective turned out to be a warehouse in K-town. We hopped out of the back of the deuce, touched our toes. Ran in place. We were under orders from no less a personage than CINCEUR to procure 100 floatation devices for a brigade river crossing exercise.

“Only 100?” I asked Sergeant Clean. A brigade consists of about 3,000 soldiers.

“Hey, at ease your shit, specialist,” he said. “I’m under orders. I do what I’m told.”

“Yes, sergeant,” I said.

The warehouse was post-World War II vintage. So were the floatation devices. Both were musty and olive drab. Both looked like they hadn’t been touched since Elvis was rocking it with the 2nd AD.

The floatation devices consisted of two foam rubber sponges wrapped in thin cotton olive drab fabric with canvas belts. They didn’t look like they could keep a 160 pound man afloat, much less a 160 pound man wearing 70 pounds of Army equipment.

We tossed 100 in the back of the deuce anyway. We were under orders.

I thought I saw a bat fly out of the warehouse. I may have been mistaken.

An hour or two later, we made it to the site of the river crossing. The brigade had been waiting on us. They were Regular Army, so their shit was tight. They were going to cross a pontoon bridge that engineers had constructed for them. The Rhein was glossy with oil.

“Strac-looking motherfuckers, aren’t they?” Sergeant Clean went.

We tossed each of them a floatation device. They each popped it over their head, but the canvas straps were too short to fit over all their equipment, so they didn’t even have them secured.

“CINCEUR said to wear them,” their colonel said. “So they’re wearing ’em.”

“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Clean said.

“Better get your ass to the other side,” the colonel suggested.

“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Clean said.

After we gave out the last floatation device, we crossed on a real bridge and drove over to where the troopers were congregating. They threw their devices into the back of our truck as they marched past. “Smells like grandma’s attic,” a sergeant major said. “How’s it going, Clean?”

“If it was going any better, I’d have to be twins, sergeant major,” Sergeant Clean replied.

When the truck seemed full, we drove back. I closed my eyes and mentally counted 82 floatation devices.

We repeated the process over and over. Thirty-two times, actually. And each time we had fewer devices.

“It may be my imagination…” Sergeant Clean started. He stared at me. “C’mon, egghead. I know you’ve been counting.”

“Seventy-two,” I said. “A loss of 28.”

“Fuck me, I signed for these fucking sad-ass pieces of shit,” Sergeant Clean said. “Hey you! Trooper!” A PFC came running up.

“Yes, sergeant!” he shouted. Infantry has high discipline–when you’re looking directly at them.

“Where are my fucking floatation devices, you fuck?” he asked, almost courteously.

“Um,” went the private.

“Don’t you fucking lie to me, boy. I know your motherfucking sergeant major. We killed many gooks together back in the happy days,” Sergeant Clean said.

“Some soldiers think they’ll make fine pillows. For the field,” the private went. “Not me, though, sergeant.”

“‘Not me though, sergeant,'” Sergeant Clean whined back at him. “Get the fuck out of my face.”

The private ran away.

“Fucking soldiers,” Sergeant Clean muttered.

Sixty-eight Guns will never die
Sixty-eight Guns our battle cry
Sixty-eight Guns will never die
Sixty-eight Guns our battle cry

We sang all the way back to ROB.

The National Guardsmen hadn’t yet returned, but we were due to be aggressed by fake Soviet troops, so I was drafted into a quick reaction force. I was paired with a large, lumpen sergeant named Craven, whose main job seemed to be making barbecue for senior staff and studying for his GED.

“What’s your MOS?” he asked me, first thing.

“Eighty-one-echo,” I said.

“What the fuck is that?”

“Illustrator,” I said.

“What the fuck does an illustrator do?”

“Draw pictures,” I said.

“No shit,” Sergeant Craven went. He rubbed his considerable belly. “Me, I’m a sixty-three-sierra. Don’t know why. That’s what they told me I’d be good at.”

“You’re pretty good at barbecue, from what I’ve heard,” I said.

“Yes, specialist. That I am.” He told me about how he got arrested back in the world and how the judge gave him a choice of joining the Army or going to jail. “Been in ten years, now they going to kick my ass out for being ignorant. Can’t read The Man’s mind, no how.” We were to patrol together in the dark, without night-vision goggles, without even a starlight scope. When it got dark, we left together. Sergeant Craven asked me, “Can you see a damn thing?”

“No, sergeant,” I said.

“Me neither. I’m going to take a piss.” And he left me standing there, somewhere, in the dark. I sat down in place. I took out my pistol and spun in on my finger. “Ay! Ay!” I heard Craven shouting.

“Yes, sergeant!” I shouted. I stood up and holstered the weapon.

“Got one!” he shouted. I ran toward where I’d heard him, tripping occasionally. I got closer and heard him say, “Hold still, motherfucker.” Thanks to a little dusting of moonlight trickling through the trees, I saw Sergeant Craven on top of a Brit.

“Oi!” went the Brit.

“Motherfucker ran right into me,” Sergeant Craven said. “Can you believe that shit? Take off your belt and truss up this motherfucker’s legs.”

I did as the sergeant ordered. He’d already tied the Brit’s hands together. Sergeant Craven tied a handkerchief over the Brit’s eyes. We used the Brit’s odd looking rifle as a pole and carried him by his tied hands and legs to the rear and deposited him in a GP small tent marked G-2 INTEL. A colonel clapped us each on the arm. “You know what you’ve just done? Do you?”

“No, sir,” Sergeant Craven answered.

“You’ve captured an SAS operative! A commando!” The colonel was very pleased with us. He took our names down. The colonel untied him and took off the makeshift blindfold and ordered him to sit in a chair. We stood facing him. The SAS guy didn’t look pleased at all now that he could see us in the light: A skinny geek and a tubby barbecue chef.

We put our belts back on and sat down on the ground facing him, like you would face a rattlesnake.

Sergeant Craven blew his nose into the handkerchief loudly.

The colonel talked excitedly on the wired phone on his field desk. He turned to the SAS guy. “Your sergeant major is on his way over.”

“Oi,” went the SAS guy.

I felt kind of sorry for him.

The sergeant major came strutting in. He nodded at the colonel. The colonel smiled. The sergeant major looked at us. He wrinkled up his nose in disgust. He had a brown leather swagger stick under his arm, which he swiftly brandished over his head and, wordlessly, used to beat the SAS guy until blood came out of his nose, mouth and ears and his eyes began to swell. The SAS guy didn’t make a sound. Not an oi or even an oof.

The sergeant major strutted out of the tent after the SAS guy passed out.

The colonel said to us, “I’m going to make sure you men get medals!”

At the end of the exercise, we were invited over to Ramstein AFB for an air show. I demurred. I hadn’t had the pleasure of my own company for the longest time, it seemed.

I could see the air show from the comfort of my cot, once I dragged it outside and lay down on it, staring up at the dull-dead sky. I sang silently to myself:

Up, down, turn around
Please don’t let me hit the ground
Tonight I think I’ll walk alone
I’ll find my soul as I go home

And I saw an explosion. I thought that it must be part of the air show, but it turned out not to be. Or it was. It wasn’t a planned part of the show. Medevac helicopters soon appeared out of all directions, heading toward where the puff of smoke now spread out, fiery at its middle. I could hear screaming. I lay there on my cot and closed my eyes.

“That was some shit,” I heard Socrates say. He shook me awake. “You missed the whole thing.”

“Sad, sad me,” I said. I dragged my cot inside our tent and went back to sleep.

[Note: this is part 5 of 8 of the complete text for John Sheppard’s book Tales of the Peacetime Army. To start reading at the beginning and for a full list of all parts, please go to the table of contents.

And if you like the story, please visit the book’s page and consider buying a copy!]

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