Part 7 of Tales of the Peacetime Army

[Note: this is part 7 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!]

THE ETERNAL FLAME

I went bowling. I kept score in my head entirely against my will. The numbers kept adding up and I couldn’t stop them. It’s like being sick all the time, being me. I have to fight to be lazy every second that I’m lazy. It’s exhausting.

“What’s your score?” a girl’s voice asked. I knew the voice.

“Kelsey,” I said, turning around. I wasn’t particularly happy to see her, though she appeared to be delighted to see me.

“Hi!”

“If I make this spare, it will be 180,” I said. “A personal best.”

“Not much of a bowler, huh?”

“Never was,” I said. I turned back around and rolled.

“Keeping your hair short these days, I see,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. I missed my spare. I had to settle for a 176. I walked back over, tried out my smile on her.

“I heard you were in the Army,” she said.

“You heard correctly,” I said.

“That’s so weird,” she said. “You’re not the type.”

“Uh, huh,” I went.

“Have you seen Rich?”

“Rich?”

“Lara?”

“Who’s that?”

“Captain of the football team?”

“Hmm,” I went. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“You’re so weird,” she said. She had makeup spattered on her face by the pound and her hair shot up out of her head like a fountain and she had on a red and white striped tee and her makeup glittered with flecks of gold and she had on shiny red parachute pants and gold ballet slippers. “No offense.”

“None taken,” I said.

I replaced the ball and turned in my bowling shoes at the counter. We sat in the little restaurant area drinking cans of new Coke and eating slices of pizza oozing orange grease. She gossiped about our classmates, most of whom never made an impression on me.

A baseball game played on the TV. “Infield fly rule!” someone shouted. Groans.

I stopped paying attention to her. I studied the faces of the people watching the game. Frustration and sadness.

“I like new Coke,” I said in response to something she said.

“What does that have to do with Dusty Burke?” she asked me.

“Nothing,” I said. I finished my pizza, leaving the rim of crust on the styrofoam plate. I stood up. “It was nice seeing you again,” I said. I reached over to shake her hand.

“Whatever,” she said, crossing her arms. She wasn’t that great looking.

I walked downtown where all the factories had been and now were converted into condos and lofts and artists’ spaces and artisan bread bakeries and so forth. It still smelled like piss. It would take more than shutting down industry to get rid of that. A new hospital was being built there. I stood and watched the workers and assorted machinery erect light gauge galvanized steel framing. Hospitals, crowed the newspaper, would replace industry as our main employer.

I walked home, to Valleyview Avenue, and let myself in. My mother was watching television. It was a midday show.

“Sorry about last night,” she said, not looking up at me. She was eating radishes off a paper plate, rubbing them in salt she’d sprinkled to the side of them. She slugged Stroh’s directly out of the can.

“That’s all right,” I said.

“But you have to admit you’re hard to get along with,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. I stood watching the chef on TV. I felt the need to make conversation. “I saw my father in Germany.”

“What? When?” She turned her head and I felt her looking at me.

I continued watching the show. “Not too long ago,” I said.

“How did he look? Did he look bad?”

“He seemed old,” I said. “Tired.”

“Did he mention me?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing you need to hear,” I said.

“Fine,” she said. She went back to watching TV. The chef was making risotto. The camera zoomed in on the risotto.

“Needs more liquid,” I said, standing there, hands in pockets, then out of pockets, then arms crossed, then uncrossed, then tapping my thighs with my fingertips.

“Just a touch more broth,” the chef said, adding it.

“It must be hell being right all the time,” my mother said, crunching down a radish.

I flew back to Germany on a commercial airliner filled with Germans who had made a connecting flight from California. They had all made the pilgrimage to Disneyland. They all had Mouseketeer beanies on, the ears silhouetted, their names stitched in yellow cursive on the backs. Inga sat in front of me with her husband and/or lover Klaus.

My mother gave me one of her anti-anxiety pills before I’d left. I swallowed it down the moment I was seated. A few minutes into the flight, I fell asleep. Soon enough, we were there and I had a Don Johnson beard.

After we debarked I saw several of the people from my flight, still wearing their ears, walk into the Blue Kino in the Frankfurt airport to enjoy some pornography.

I took the 21st Repo Depot bus down to Mannheim. No one seemed to mind or notice the extra passenger not in uniform. What had once seemed exotic now had a tinge of familiarity to it. I had a little less than a year left in-country.

“I heard you went home to get married,” the S-1 sergeant told me when I signed back into the unit.

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.

“That’s what everyone is saying,” she said.

“Define ‘everyone,'” I said.

She glared at me until I left.

I found Socrates down in the basement, in the supply room. Rosita was sitting around flipping through a magazine. She gave me a wary smile.

I said to Socrates, “You could try telling people the truth.”

“Truth, schmooth.” He was counting olive-drab wristwatches.

“Spreading interesting rumors, are we?”

“Oh. That.” He rolled his eyes. “What’s truth anyway? Is it being factually correct? I don’t think so.”

Rosita said, “Here we go.”

Socrates said, “Truth is about revealing, not about fact checking. It’s about seeing the way things are from a perspective, perhaps not your own. So let’s say everyone thinks you’re a non-human freak. Now let’s say they think you’re getting married. Non-human freaks don’t get married, so now they start seeing you as human. Isn’t that closer to the truth? Closer than the facts? Facts, schmacts!”

Rosita said, “Don’t start singing that Talking Heads song.”

Socrates sang, “‘Facts are simple and facts are straight. Facts are lazy and facts are late. Facts all come with points of view–‘”

Rosita shouted, “Stop it!”

Vince came sprinting in from the commo room. “What? Stop what?”

Rosita said, “He’s singing again.”

Vince said, “Oh. Hey, how was your wedding? Where’s the little honey?”

I said, “No such honey exists.”

Vince said, “I heard you were getting married though.”

I said, “Apparently, that’s merely factually inaccurate. However there is, according to Socrates, some underlying truth involved.”

Vince said, “I hate you guys. Both of you. I ought to kick your asses.”

Rosita said, “I love it when you talk like that. Anyone in the commo room right now?”

Vince took her hand. “Come on, baby!”

They quickly exited.

I said, “I hope you’re using a prophylactic.”

Socrates said, “Who says ‘prophylactic’?”

I said, “Apparently, married men do.”

Socrates said, “And the truth reveals itself.” He spread his hands together at the heels like a blossoming flower.

I took a shower. I put on my uniform. I wandered around in my office. The Germans were gone. My brain was on low-churn, so I did not bring a book with me to keep it occupied. I stared out the window.

Vince was in the room with me. For how long? “Hey, man,” Vince said, slapping a hand on my shoulder. “Sorry about your fiancee dorking out on you.”

“That’s all right,” I said. I figured, at this point, what the hell. Go with it.

“That lieutenant. The one who’s fucking Rosita?”

“Yeah?”

“A bunch of us were thinking about paying him a visit,” Vince said. Grinding teeth smile.

“Count me in,” I said. I figured I’d nip off and go see my father.

“We’re going to rally out in the parking lot at Socrates Bimmer at about twenty-hundred hours,” he said.

“Bring your gloves,” I said. “The ones that go with your field jacket. The wool inserts, too. You don’t want to come back with bruised knuckles.”

“Outstanding,” Vince said. He left.

The XO entered about five minutes later. I snapped to attention and he put me at ease. “It’s come to my attention that you have–” he thought for a moment. “Certain skills.”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“I’m a garrison soldier,” the XO continued. “I’m not ashamed to admit it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And I have no experience planning field exercises,” he said. “None.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ve brought some books with me. I understand you’re a quick study.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No one could ever accuse me of under-utilizing my soldiers and their talents,” the CO said.

“Yes, sir.”

“So what I’d like for you to do is–” the XO searched for words again. He failed.

“Draw up the plans for a field exercise, sir?”

“For the 23rd Ordnance Company. Yes. I have examples in here,” the XO said. “They’ve never been to the field. I’ve been tasked with helping them out.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll leave this with you,” the XO said.

“Yes, sir.”

He started for the door.

“Sir?”

“Yes, specialist?”

“Sir, what happened to the lieutenant who was in charge of the M60 range about two weeks ago? The one where the soldier died?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It was an unfortunate accident, it was decided.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome, specialist.” He left.

When the evening came, the bunch ended up being Vince, Socrates and me, which was fine. We drove up to Northpoint without saying much of anything to each other. Vince had directions written down and Socrates drove most of the way. Slightly after midnight, we found the butterbar’s place, which was not on base but in a tiny town about 5 kilometers away. I’m not even sure if the town had a name. After we parked, I went upstairs and knocked on the door. The lieutenant answered.

“Come with me,” I said to him, and turned on my heel.

“I have to get dressed,” he said. “And who are you?”

I turned around, impatient. I spoke to him like I would a child. “Who do you think I am?” I asked him.

“I dunno,” he said.

“Come with me now,” I said. I curled my index finger at him.

And he jumped into a PT uniform and followed me downstairs, hopping around in his half-on sneakers. “What’s this all about?” he asked me, then looked around and saw Vince, pissed off, and Socrates, arms crossed.

“What you need to know is this: Deeds have consequences,” I said.

“I like that,” Socrates said.

“You would,” Vince said.

“Well?” I went, looking over at Vince.

“Um,” Vince went.

I stared at him for a moment or two. He was not going to do anything.

I was a head shorter than the lieutenant, but that didn’t stop me from walking over to him and clocking him on the jaw, crack! My hand lit up. The lieutenant hit the ground and did not get up. I knelt down and made sure he was still breathing by putting my ear to his mouth and watching his chest rise and fall.

“Give me a hand,” I said to Vince.

“What did you do that for?” Vince asked me. He was upset.

Socrates was giggling. He grabbed an arm and I grabbed the other. Vince grabbed his feet.

“He’s heavy,” Vince said.

“Let’s get him upstairs. I don’t think he locked up,” I said.

“You knocked him out!” Socrates shouted. “Classic!”

“He’s an officer,” Vince whispered.

“That didn’t seem to bother you when you thought he was fucking your girlfriend,” Socrates said.

“Well it bothers me now,” Vince said. “We could be court-martialed for this.”

“Nobody’s going to get court-martialed,” I said.

“Seriously,” Vince said. “Jesus he’s heavy. But seriously, we could get–”

“Right, we get it,” Socrates said. “Who would have thought you’d be such a puss.”

“You’re surprised at me? What about GT?” Vince said.

We dumped the lieutenant in his apartment and shut the door. We stood for a moment in the hallway in the dark, listening. No sounds.

“Let’s boogie,” Vince said.

We all ran to the car and took off.

Nothing happened.

The next time I saw the butterbar was when I was aggressing the 23rd while it was being ARTEPed. This was the ARTEP that the XO had asked me to plan, so a map of their encampment was in my head. They were in the woods at Hohenfels Combat Maneuver Training Center, knowing full well that they would be aggressed. It was just me and my section leader, the artillery-deafened lieutenant. We split up. I walked directly into their area of operations. I was dressed as a Soviet army officer, wearing OPFOR gear.  If anyone had challenged me, I would have spoken in broken English. But no one did.

I walked into the butterbar’s tent, he rated a GP small tent of his own, and I shook him awake.

“Remember me?” I said. I knelt next to his cot.

“Who are you?” he said.

“That’s not important,” I said. “You’ve failed your ARTEP. That’s what’s important. Your sentries were too far apart. Don’t you know how to read a map. I was very detailed in my instructions. What do they teach you people in at West Point these days?”

He didn’t answer. I left his tent.

I had, in my rucksack, a case of glow sticks. I snapped them and shook them and hung them on the butterbar’s vehicles like Christmas ornaments while the butterbar sat in his GP small tent wondering what to do, not making a sound. Maybe he’d decided he was dead for the purposes of the exercise. Maybe he was humiliated.

My deaf lieutenant came jogging up to me. “Let’s go,” he said.

“Yes, sir,” I said. I ran alongside him. I could hear the popping of flares and crack of blank ammo being expended. Neither of us were armed, not even with fake Kalashnikov’s.

We hopped into our CUCVEE and scrammed back to the rear.

We were staying at the General Abrams Hotel and Dispensary at the American Armed Forces Recreation Area in Garmisch-Partenkirschen, which was about two hours south. We had to drive through Munich in the middle of the night to get there. The old lieutenant stayed in the same quarters as I did through a little lie. He still had his old enlisted ID card and flashed it at the night clerk. The night clerk didn’t bat an eye at two men dressed as Soviet soldiers. We climbed up the stairs, past a mural of Nazi soldiers playing guitars and singing with the local gals.

The following morning, we awoke at dawn and looked out upon the alps, majestic and surreal, a tourism poster in 3-D.

“I love Germany,” the lieutenant said. “I’m going to retire here.”

“What will you do?”

“I’ll go civil service and work for the Army for another twenty or so years.”

“What if the Cold War ends?”

He looked at me like I was the dumbest spec-four ever. “It’s never going to end. Don’t you know that?” He stared out at the mountains for a while. “When are you going up for E-5?”

“Whenever I’m told,” I said.

“We’ll get you in front of the board as soon as we get back,” the lieutenant said. “Sometime after Oktoberfest.” He grinned and wagged a finger at me. “We’re staying for Oktoberfest. No complaining.”

We stayed for Oktoberfest. We wore our class A uniforms, walking around the massive festival. The lieutenant insisted on it. “We’re on official business,” he said. “On temporary duty down here in southern Germany, enjoying the hospitality of the locals.” Which ended up being true.

Each beer company, there were six, had two tents. One was devoted exclusively to beer, the other, the fest tent, had beer and chicken and Bavarian entertainment. These tents were massive enough to quarter a brigade of soldiers.

Germans kept on buying us drinks. “Drink Americans! Drink!” I drank. Men in lederhosen did backflips while the crowd cheered them on. An oompah band farted out notes. The beer steins were made of glass, embossed with the beer company’s name. Mine had a shovel on it.

I fell asleep sometime after my fourth liter of festbier. I awoke clutching a china plate that had Der Stadtsparkasse München on it, my mouth gritty with sweet-and-sour vomit. I spat. Above me, someone had painted on the fest tent ceiling blue skies and cottonball clouds with fat German angels sitting on them twanging on harps.

And I thought, sitting there in my still-drunken stupor, I don’t care if I ever see my father again. Nothing personal against the man. My father was not the father I never had. The Army was.

The lieutenant was as good as his word. A month after we returned, I stood in front of the E-5 board, which consisted of the sergeant major, who was president of the board; my squad leader, who owed me ten bucks; Doc, who liked me well enough; Gary; and my father.

“Funny how you two have the same name and the same hometown of record,” the sergeant major said.

“I enlisted in the Army in 1984, attended basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama and AIT at Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado. I was awarded the Army Achievement Medal shortly upon arriving here,” I said. ” I have a bachelor’s degree. I am currently assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, One Ninety First Ordnance Battalion. My short-term goals are to achieve promotion to sergeant, and graduate PLDC with honors. My intermediate goals are to obtain a master’s degree, promotion to staff sergeant, and to attend and graduate from the master illustrator course. My long-term goal is to retire from the Army as a senior enlisted man.”

“Oh, it’s gonna be like that, is it?” Gary asked. He nudged my father with his elbow.

They took turns asking me Army questions:

What is the highest peacetime award for valor?
What three words are inscribed on the front of the Good Conduct Medal?
What is a fourragère?
What is sergeant’s business?
What is the maximum effective range of the M16A1 rifle?

I passed the board and was selected to attend the Primary Leadership Development Course at the Seventh Army NCO Academy in Bad Toelz. I was not shocked when my father showed up in his near-dead Ford to drive me the three and a half hours down south.

“So,” he said. “You were pretty good in front of the promotion board.”

“Thanks,” I said. I sat staring at him for a moment. It was all a bit much. “What should I call you?”

“‘Sergeant,'” he said. “‘Dad’ would be too weird.”

“For you or for me, sergeant?”

“Both of us,” he said.

We didn’t have much to say to each other. After we stopped for gas in Karlsruhe, he invited me to ask him any question that came to mind. I scoured my brain, but came up with nothing. I shrugged.

“Why are you so short?” he asked me.

“Genetics, I suppose,” I said.

“Not from my side of the family,” he said.

I shrugged.

“You better not shrug at PLDC. They’ll light your ass up for that shit,” he said.

“Roger,” I said. I sat up straight.

“Don’t sit up straight now,” he said. “Save it for later.”

“Roger,” I said, and reslouched.

“You’re full of book-learning,” he said.

“Knowledge is knowledge, no matter the source,” I said.

“That’s bullshit,” he said.

I said nothing for a while, just watched the German countryside winging past. BMW’s zipped up behind us and flashed their lights. Drizzle mixed with snow whizzed down and around.

“You need to watch yourself and that mouth,” my father said. “That’s all I’m saying.”

“Yes, sergeant,” I said. I couldn’t help it. I felt nothing for the man. He was a stranger who wore my face.

He dropped me off near the barracks and let me walk the rest of the way toting my duffel bag. He honked at me. I walked back over to the car. “See you in a month,” he said. I  walked away again. He honked again. I walked back again. “Don’t embarrass me,” he said.

I leaned down at face level. “What? You have friends here, too?”

“I have friends everywhere,” my father said. He drove off in a burnt-oil haze, a death rattle clanking under the hood of his scrap Ford.

Other than the constant PT, I enjoyed PLDC. We marched around. We marched each other around. We performed facing movements. We rolled our underwear and tee shirts and socks and placed them like artifacts on display in our tiny chest of drawers. We hung our uniforms in our wall lockers, each hanger two fingers apart. We polished our boots. We land-navigated by sun and stars and compass. We learned our creed, “No one is more professional than I. I am a Noncommissioned Officer, a leader of soldiers…” We each were allowed to be a leader of soldiers, of each other. We learned songs.

We were born one day in ’49
From the ranks of infantry
Our standards we set high and hard
Through responsibility
Though the road was long, it led the way
And our effort all can see
We’re the biggest, we’re the best, we’ve stood the test
Seventh Army NCO Academy

Flint Kaserne had the mountains off in the distance. And the abundant trees. It was beautiful there, unlike Mannheim.  Our barracks formed a square.

I could see why the lieutenant fell in love with the place, with Bavaria.

We shared the kaserne with Special Forces guys, who were scary. Sometimes we saw them in the mess hall during lunch or dinner, off by themselves, enjoying their dark camaraderie.

And then it was over, and I had to go back to my shabby barracks, driven by my shabby father in his shabby car.

Socrates’ orders came in. He was going to the airborne. First he would go to Fort Benning for jump school, and then on to Fort Bragg. “I leave you with these final words of wisdom,” he said before he left. “‘Get a job.'” And then he was gone.

I would see him one more time, years in the future.

My stint in Europe was beginning to wind down.

I found on my desk a short timer’s calendar, on which I was supposed to mark off, day-by-day, my final 90 days in-country.  It featured a determined soldier marching along a numbered path toward a C-130. He was looking over his shoulder, giving the viewer the thumbs-up. Along the numbered path, Germans waved. I rolled it up and saved it.

It’s on my office wall. During office hours, when my students come in, they squint at it. If they ask about it, I tell them it is from when I was in the Army. Next to it, I have a photo of me, Socrates, Doc and Vince standing in front of our barracks. The color has faded from the photo. “Those are my Army buddies,” I tell my inquisitive students.

Where are they now? some students ask.

“I don’t know,” I tell them.

[Note: this is part 7 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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