I am at 13,257 – ahead of the curve still, and still writing tonight. But I thought I’d share some of my recent work on the project (again unedited):
I had just crawled into my bunk when the sirens began to scream – again.
The shout of “Bunkers!” went through the tent – seconds before the call came over the loudspeaker.
Wagner and I both fell out of our racks and put our gas masks on. What had started out, weeks before, as something that was done lightning-fast and with military precision had become such a tedious chore that we both fumbled and stumbled our way through getting the annoying rubber contraptions over our heads. Over them went our helmets, ill-fitting and thus ill-suited to provide adequate protection when placed atop the masks. We already had our IBAs – flak vests – on our torsos, over the top of the thick and heavy JLIST gear. The JLIST was the “latest and greatest” version of the chemical protective suits worn by military personnel in theater. It was technically lighter than what had been worn before – the BDO – but that didn’t mean that it was pleasant to wear. It looked and felt like a desert camouflaged version of a firefighter’s gear.
With our gear on, and weapons in hand, we ran – shuffled at a brisk pace would be a more honest description – out of the tent and towards the nearest bunker.
“Fuckin’ bunkers again,” Sergeant Cooke groaned from behind us, “I’m startin’ to wish one of them fuckin’ Scuds would hit us.”
Sergeant Brady Cooke was in charge of my fire team. Our other teammate was Private First Class Sean Coburn, the gunner in our crew. Coburn was the youngest of the group, at eighteen, with Cooke the eldest – his twenty-five years eclipsing me by four.
At seven inches over five feet tall and under one hundred and fifty pounds, Coburn could best be described as “scrawny” and, unable to grow facial hair, “baby-faced”. The facial hair thing was at once a bane and a boon for the soldier – since he didn’t have to shave daily. The bitch of it was that not a day went by that we didn’t make fun of the poor guy for not being a real man. Regular Army ribbing, for the most part. He was also a redhead, a ginger, with a dusting of freckles across a pug nose and otherwise paper-white skin. I am sure he was picked on more than once when he was growing up and if he thought he would avoid it in the Army he was quite mistaken.
Sergeant Cooke was his own unique character. He was tall, built wide, with a lower lip that jutted out with a plug of chewing tobacco always occupying it. No matter how often he shaved he seemed to have black stubble covering his jaw morning, noon, and night. The stubble matched his black hair, cut to a flattop, and steel eyes. Cooke was, in every way, a southern boy. Born and raised in Texas, he spent his childhood working on the family ranch, where he picked up a trademark Texas drawl that was sometimes peppered with Spanish accents. He happened to be fluent in two languages, he was fond of saying: Texan and Spanish. He had a curious habit of hooking his thumbs behind an imagined oversized belt buckle and standing with his hips thrust forward while squinting.
Cooke never raised his voice at us as our sergeant. Instead he would get quiet when he was pissed. The quieter he got the more you knew you were going to hurt. It was our good fortune, then, that he was also a “class clown.” It worked out especially well for Coburn who seemed to be always afraid of getting yelled at or disappointing someone.
“Where’s Coburn?” Cooke’s muted voice asked from behind the mask as we trotted towards the bunker.
“Don’t know, Sergeant.” I answered.
“How the fuck don’t ya know, Corporal? Didn’t I tell ya’ll to keep an eye on the scrawny little fucker?”
“We just got into our racks, Sergeant, he was in there then!”
Sergeant Cooke stopped and looked behind us. I stopped as well – Wagner ducked into the bunker, leaving me to deal with Cooke on my own.
“Where is that little bastard?” The muted voice from under the mask was subdued. Fuck.
“I’ll go check the tent, Sergeant,” I said and started back.
“The hell you will, Fancy, ya’ll get in that damned bunker or Top will have my ass.”
There was no light so when you would first duck down inside the bunker you were blind. And, unless you were the first to arrive, you would trip and stumble over the other inhabitants who had crammed their way into it. I did just that, falling over someone who cried out in a muted female voice, “Watch it, Army!”
A hand grabbed me and pulled me to one of the bunker walls.
“Over here, Ritz.” It was Wagner. The bunker was filled with soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines – assholes to elbows – but I managed to squeeze in between Wagner and Smoke – our company’s large chemical NCO. It was his job to monitor for nuclear, biological, or chemical attacks.
I’m sure Smoke had a real name and I’m sure I was told it more than once but I can’t for the life of me remember it. We all just knew him as “Smoke”.
Just when my eyes had adjusted to the darkness Cooke and Coburn came in and were forced to sit on the very edge of the bunker’s protection. I couldn’t hear what was being said but I could tell by body language that Cooke was not happy with Coburn and Coburn was not happy with his situation.
Somehow, as a corporal, Cooke would blame me for it. Cooke thought it was his duty to prepare me to be a sergeant by making me take care of Coburn. I cursed under my breath.
“I am so fucking tired,” Wagner muttered – distracting me from my brooding thoughts. Starting about two weeks prior, as near as I could tell with my fragmented sense of time, Saddam’s troops had begun a campaign of psychological warfare by launching missiles at us on regular intervals – pretty much every half hour. This had the effect of preventing us from getting any sleep as the moment a launch was detected everyone was scrambled to get to their respective bunkers and wait until the all clear sounded.
“I know. I haven’t slept more than twenty minutes at a time in two days and I have eaten in at least three.” I replied.
“I never thought I could get so tired that eating was too much effort,” Smoke added.
The siren started to blare again. This time it was a pattern of tones I couldn’t place my finger on.
“What the hell does that one mean?” A voice in the darkness complained.
“It means one is coming close,” Smoke replied in a dead voice.
Silence descended over the bunker.
A sudden scream, a whoosh, like the sound of dozens of jets taking off, made me jump. Another interminable silence hung over the bunker. Then a series of distant explosions.
“Patriots,” Smoke announced.
“Did they get it?”
The anonymous voice in the dark received his answer a moment later when a shock wave shook dust from the sandbagged roof of the bunker and rattled our teeth.
“Yup,” Smoke deadpanned.
We waited another ten or fifteen minutes for the all clear – but it didn’t come. Instead a different set of tones blared out of the loudspeakers.
I should say that the first few times we did “bunkers”, as we came to calling our wonderful time dodging Scuds, I was scared. Terrified even. The terrible honesty of not knowing, not seeing, that comes with hiding in a bunker while high explosives or worse are coming towards you at supersonic speed is an experience of absolute impotence. They say “there are no atheists in foxholes” – and I can honestly say that more than once I found myself praying to any deity that may be listening to save my ass.
But nothing came close to the terror of those tones over the loudspeaker. I will be the first to admit that I didn’t know most of the communication signals I was supposed to know for air raids and attacks but I knew that one. So did most everyone else in the cramped space. Suddenly I wasn’t exhausted: I was wide awake.
Smoke, for his part, sprang into action and turned on the boxy contraption between his legs. It was a chemical and biological weapons detector. It made beeps and other electronic noises that I didn’t understand. Each one made me jump. Each new tone brought a voice somewhere in the bunker asking, “What does that mean?”
I started to itch under my mask. It was probably the sweat and dirt pooling – I always itched in the mask and gear, I told myself – but my mind wouldn’t let it be. What were the symptoms of mustard gas? Wasn’t skin irritation the first symptom? Jesus, did I get the seal right on my mask? I had done it so many times that I wasn’t taking it seriously anymore. If it was just sweat and dirt then why was I only feeling it around the seal?
My arms started to itch underneath the JLIST. Soon my whole body was itching. I felt hot, hotter than before, and every drop of sweat was an invader that ran down my bare skin – buried so far beneath the layers of uniform and clothing.
“Smoke, what is it?” I asked, trying to resist the urge to freak out and scratch everywhere.
“Don’t fuckin’ know, Fancy, can’t get a goddamned readin’.” Smoke was growling.
“Need to do a drill then, Smoke.” Cooke said. I noticed his voice was steady as a rock, the Texas accent pronounced even through the muffling effect of the mask.
“Yup. I think we do. Who is lowest ranking in here?”
I could swear I heard the sound of a dung beetle burrowing in the sand beneath me. Nobody was about to answer that question. Everybody knew what he was asking.
“Coburn is PFC,” Cooke offered.
“What!” I could hear Coburn’s voice crack under his mask.
“No E1s or E2s in here?” Smoke asked, shining his flashlight from masked face to masked face.
“Fine. Coburn,” Smoke crawled on his knees over to face my teammate, “you know the drill right?”
A shaking nod answered.
“Okay. On the count of three I need you to break seal and then immediately re-seal. Got it?”
I jumped. I had never heard Coburn speak out like that before, or even cuss. The little pale bastard had grown some balls. Someone laughed.
“Private fuckin’ Coburn!” Cooke was yelling. Cooke never yelled. “Ya’ll do the unmaskin’ or I swear to fuckin’ Gawd I’ll shoot you!”
Coburn’s head jerked between looking at Cooke and back to Smoke. Smoke held up a gloved hand, “Don’t worry, Brady. He’s scared. I’m scared. We’re all fuckin’ scared.”
There was another eternity of silence.
“Look, Coburn, here’s what we’ll do,” Smoke sat back on his heels, “on the count of three we’ll both break seal, got it?” Coburn nodded.
Smoke removed his helmet and Coburn did the same. Smoke put his right hand on his forehead and left under the filter at his chin. Coburn did the same.
“One…” The bunker was completely silent. Even the heavy breathing had stopped.
“Two…” I was holding my breath.
“Three…” Smoke and Coburn both lifted their masks. And then Smoke’s mask came off completely and his round face was exposed to the air, to whatever was in the air, but he seemed to not care. He was screaming, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth, and lunging awkwardly for Coburn, whose hands were held out to ward off of the raging black man.
Cooke and another soldier I didn’t know grabbed Smoke and pulled the huge man back. I couldn’t understand what Smoke was yelling about as every other word was “fucking” and he was slurring from so much angry spit flying out. But I could make out an odd sound: Cooke was laughing. Not just chuckling, but full guffaws and cackles. The other soldier started to as well.
Smoke calmed down and smiled.
“You little shit,” he said.
The all clear sounded.
“Fuck me.” Smoke started laughing harder. Gas masks started coming off but Coburn didn’t move to take his off.
“Okay, Coburn, I give it to you: that was pretty fuckin’ smart. It was illegal as fuck but it was smart. You owe me, you know that? Whenever Cooke don’t need you your ass is gonna be mine. And I got a lot of nasty fuckin’ details for you. You got it?”
Coburn nodded and then took his mask off. He was grinning sheepishly.
“What the fuck happened?” I asked, as the others were filing out of the bunker.
Cooke was still laughing. He had tears running down his sweaty face. But he managed to choke out, “Coburn faked breaking seal.”
I looked at the mousy little redhead. His grin was getting bigger. I started to laugh.
“First you told a Sergeant First Class to fuck off and then you tricked him into unmasking so you wouldn’t have to?”
Coburn nodded, his grin getting bigger.
“You are so fucking dead, dude. I can’t believe Smoke isn’t gonna court martial your ass.”
“I got somethin’ better for that smartass little prick,” Smoke said and lit up the omnipresent cigarette that gave him his nickname.