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SOLDIERS
Greg Farnum
What god damned black hour of the morning was it anyway? What day was it?


Listen Up The Moon.
The bald man in the drill sergeant’s hat had commanded their gaze toward the distant orb. They stared at it, bright silver in the cold night air. The bald man paced, the only sound that of gravel scurrying from his shiny black boots. Down the line the fat boy wheezed. Thomas tensed and shot a ghost of a glance in the fat boy’s direction, as if he could quiet the fat boy’s lungs through force of will. How many times had the fat boy been in the hospital...two? Three? The last time was the worst. Thomas had seen his face, red and woozy and pleading as he lay in the sand pit that was used for crawling practice. He couldn’t crawl anymore -- the heat stroke was coming over him again like it had before. "Pussy!" screamed the bald man, adding something about the fat boy’s mother. "Move, fat boy, move!" The fat boy looked up once, glassy eyed, before he buried his face in the sand and cried.

What god damned black hour of the morning was it anyway? What day was it? It wasn’t the day they went to the rifle range. Thank God. if you failed at the rifle range it wasn’t pretty. Another day of running back and forth singing songs about killing Charlie Cong, probably. "You’ll thank me for this," the bald man would say as he ran them back and forth. "Charlie Cong ain’t gonna wipe your little noses and sing you to sleep like I do." You’ll thank me for this he’d told the fat boy writhing in the sand, adding, "I oughta put a boot in your ass."

The bald man stood there, conferring with a corporal who held a clipboard. Why did they get us up in the middle of the night? The fear in the ranks was palpable. Shipping us out before anyone had a chance to go AWOL? Sending us to some commando unit where we’d have to live off leaves and snakes? Or perhaps some new form of punishment, some new form of degradation that we hadn’t even thought of. They waited and gazed obediently upward.

Thomas thought of his cousin and how, years ago, they would lie on their backs on the welcoming lawn and stare up at the sky. Lie on their backs like lordly souls at the beginning of time, look up at the sky and discuss the events of the day. Like whether or not we would find Jesus if we sent a space ship out far enough, or whether time travel was possible, or whether or not we would beat the Russians to the moon. The cousin thought not: the Russians already had sputnik. Thomas knew different. We would beat the Russians. We would get there first. We had to.
The bald man handed the clipboard back to the corporal and turned toward the ranks, a small, almost imperceptible lowering of eyes and necks. "Now listen up!" he bellowed. "We’ve just walked on the moon."

Skirmish

He could hear the old woman talking in the next house while he ate a bowl of soup and shared a bottle of beer with the corporal. He'd been with the corporal for two weeks now.
Two days ago he had seen his first action. They were with some local men...just sitting...when about ten of the enemy came walking down the road. They opened up, then got out before the enemy could return any effective fire. They got one. At least that's what everybody said. He didn't see it, but the corporal and some of the local men said the first few shots brought the enemy's point man down. He went down grabbing his leg, they said, and crawled into the bushes. The fact that shots had been exchanged -- a real fight -- made him feel like a legendary warrior of old. Sort of.

The corporal was pretty casual about the whole thing, having survived a lot of fights. That made him feel better, more confident, knowing the corporal had never even been seriously wounded. A little better. A lot of the men with the corporal hadn't made it.
He'd just borrowed a cigarette when the rumbling became audible.
"APCs," said the corporal. "They come by here two or three times a week about this time. Don't worry, they never stop. The bastards are afraid to stop."
He did some serious smoking in the darkening room as the sound of the tracks grew louder. And then they stopped. That quiet was the loudest sound he'd ever heard. For a moment. Until the whole sky broke loose. The tracks' .30 caliber and .50 caliber machine guns opened up in concert. He threw himself into one of the shelters...the holes...in the floor. Plaster and dirt rained on his face and through closed eyes he seemed to see the small house being ripped apart. The sound of breaking glass and pottery...louder, almost -- and more frightening -- than the sound of the guns. A whiff of smoke. Something was on fire. He prayed they'd stop shooting and come and take him prisoner. Even if they'd just ease up a bit he could get out of the hole and try to surrender.
And then it was over. They'd stopped. He laid in the hole, his eyes shut tight, waiting for them to come and get him.

Nobody came. He could hear them, but nobody came. He opened his eyes, raised himself, and looked around. The corporal looked like he'd been dead for a week. The smoke was coming from the next house over. Across the field, distant laughter.
His rifle was lying on the floor, the stock chewed up by a bullet, but otherwise OK. He crawled out of the hole, grabbed his rifle, and made his way across the floor towards the back door.
A thought struck him. He turned and crawled back to the corporal. Careful not to touch the body, he went through the dead man's pockets.
He stopped again when he reached the back gate. It had been knocked down by bullets. He lay there on the damp dirt of the back yard, staring up at the space where the gate had been, the splintered gate post flickering in the light from the burning house. Behind him, the still cheerful voices, and an occasional random shot.
He got up and walked through the gate, across the small garden, and into the forest. After a couple minutes he stopped. He could no longer hear voices or see fires. Leaning his rifle against a tree he searched through his pockets. He found the corporal's lighter and a nearly full pack of cigarettes. He lit one, picked up the rifle, and walked on.

© Gregory Farnum 2001

READ ALSO THE BARN/ DISCONNECTED


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