Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Army Training, Sir!

General Barnicke: Where have you been, soldier?
John Winger: Training, sir.
Soldiers: Training, sir.
General Barnicke: What kind of training?
John Winger: Army training, Sir.
Soldiers: Army training, Sir.
- from the motion picture Stripes

You know, when I entered the Active Duty military as a young second lieutenant, I figured that it was all business, all good soldiering, and there wasn't any of that joking around silly stuff of fiction to be had anywhere, anytime.

Boy, was I wrong.

My second day on actual Active Duty, in fact, is a day I'll remember for a long, long time.  See, I'd shown up the day before, dropped off of the back of a 5-ton truck in the middle of what most Seattle area residents were enjoying as a nice, relaxed snow day, to take charge of a platoon-leaderless platoon of motorized infantrymen doing light infantry maneuvers.  Yes, that all works out to mean that guys who were used to putting their rucksacks in the back seat of a Hummer and driving to the battlefield were ordered, on a day of inclement weather, to put those rucks on their backs, move on foot through thick woods, and close with and destroy enemy forces.

In retrospect, just that last sentence is comical as crap.  Shouldn't be, but it is.

For our first enemy contact, we were crossing a narrow but rapidly-flowing stream that had been covered in snow when an opfor (opposing forces--our own troops playing against us in war games) machine gun (firing blanks) opened up on us.  We closed with and destroyed the position in a suitable timeframe, granted, but not before one of my soldiers slipped and fell directly and completely into the 12-inch-deep stream, causing instant hypothermia followed by a quick Medevac.  *sigh*

Oh, he ended up being just fine, but I wasn't just worried about his welfare.  We'd been told over and over at West Point that a platoon leader whose troops had to be removed due to heat or cold injuries was liable to be removed of leadership on the spot. So there I was, first day on the job, liable for--yeah.  Dang. 

They didn't, though.  Relieve me, that is.  I stayed in charge, and we kept pushing forward to the next objective.  There, we assaulted a hill, again firing blanks, and we successfully took the hill and dug into defensive positions.  Only, then my platoon sergeant needed medical attention, and not due to cold injury. No, he'd consumed too many Cokes in a heated Hummer, and he was dehydrated. 

Double dang.  Crap, even.  Any chance I ever had of becoming a general officer, I saw slipping through the cracks down the mudslide that was the hill we'd taken through the warming snow, and all that on my first day.

The next day dawned cold and crappy, but that is the kind of weather that makes most infantrymen happy.  We rose and left behind the comfort of--um, holes in the dirt--and continued in a southwestward direction toward what was marked as the Final Objective.  I, the newbie platoon leader, was in the middle, the second most senior platoon leader to my left, and the senior PL, the guy ready for another post soon, to my right, all moving steadily through the damp and chilly forest.

It didn't take too long to get there--which I must admit I found a little suspicious at the time.  "Alpha Six," the company radio called out for the my commander, "enemy position spotted to our front.  Sending scout, over," the senior platoon leader to my right said, and wow, I thought--smart man, apparently--I'd had us as not quite there yet according to my own map readings.

Then again, you know what they say about second lieutenants with a map.  If you don't, then go to any web site where there's a lot of derogatory cursing going on, and you'll get the gist.  Despite the weekends I'd spent as a kid with my dad roaming the Tombigbee Forest with a map and a compass, I was supposed to have no idea where I was, as evidenced by the golden bar upon my lapel, and I was fine with that as I waited for instructions to attack from the company commander.

"Alpha Six," an embarrassed voice finally came across the line, "We scouted the enemy position, and found that it is our position from last night."

They'd left our side and land-navigated into a full circle.


I giggled a lot that day, thanks to the confirmation that others were as prone to errors as I was.  More so, even, when it came to land navigation.  In fact, I still giggle about that, today, many years after I left the active duty infantry behind me for good.

A year, ish, later, I had my own Senior Lieutenant moment.  This time we were at Yakima, our major training ground for motorized Fort Lewis troops.  We were playing against an opfor again, and to be honest I was really looking forward to being relieved as a platoon leader by some young butterbar so that I could move up to battalion staff. 

"I see troop movement to the front," one of my squad leaders called, and I relayed that information up to Alpha Six.  I didn't see anything, granted, but I was hunkered down in a Command & Control position near the middle, and the squad leaders, all experienced sergeants, were looking out over the killing field we hoped to command with their night vision sights.

"Keep me informed," my company commander radioed back. 

Some time later--I don't know; it was well into the nighttime hours, and I wasn't watching a clock--the same squad leader reported more troop movement to his front.  I relayed it up, and the company commander radioed back, "Keep me informed."

The third time the squad leader reported movement, it was well into the early morning hours, and so I was tired of the lack of progression.  I raised the platoon radio handset in preparation to order one of the forward troops to get out of their vehicle and check out the movement to the front when another, somewhat more senior, squad leader radioed in.

"You idiot, those are cows," the rebuke came clearly across the platoon's frequency.

Dutifully, I reported the cows up to the company commander.  After all, I wanted him to get whatever rest--and, um, giggles--he could, right?

In the morning I asked him whether he'd relayed the cows report to battalion.  "Nope, didn't have the courage," he said, and that made me laugh.

Hey, at least I had the courage to report the cows.

The strange, writer-centric part of this?  If I hadn't lived it, I wouldn't believe the incredible humor that was part of the service lifestyle.  Too often we writers get drawn into ideas about how things should be instead of how things are, and we forget that real life is way, way stranger than any fiction we can create.



Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Absence of Noise

"If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers." - Doug Larson

How strange our language is, to define certain things as the absence of other things.

I'm specifically thinking of the word quiet, which is defined by Ye Olde Dictionary as the absence of noise.  Noise--yes, that can be defined, and pointed to; we all know noise when we hear it.  Right?  But quiet?  It's--well, um, it's the lack of, um, well, it's, I guess, it's the lack of noise.

See what I mean?

There are any number of sonic physical definitions we could come up with.  After all, sound is merely a vibration in the air around us, and that is easily measured in terms of decibels.  I suppose one could--and, now that I think on it, someone probably already did--specify "quiet" as a certain number of dBs.  Still, that seems a waste, since few of us carry dB-meters around with us.

That said, we all know what quiet sounds like, right?

Quiet's certainly not the only word that's defined like that.  Take my own pastime, writing.  It's got an entire category of genres--and here I refer to non-fiction--that is defined by what it is not.  Fiction is fairly well defined; it is prose that's imaginary, made up, false.  Romance, for example, is fiction (take that for what it's worth).  The same is true of science fiction, but I suppose that one was too obvious.

So the antonym, or opposite meaning word, of fiction is truth, right?  Problem is, that space in the bookstore contains far too many books by folks like Rush Limbaugh to be called "The Truth Section."  Thus, I imagine its title is the result of a bookseller of old nodding at it and saying, "Forsooth, verily, I supposeth that yon volumes be not entirely made up."  Not Entirely Made Up is too long a title for that area, though.

Hence, the non in non-fiction.

But I digress.

I've written about quiet before.  Then, it wasn't completely quiet; I was actually surrounded by the beautiful crescendo of a natural wooded environment awakening for a splendid fall morning.  This morning, on the other hand, the lack of noise was pretty much complete.

I awoke to a power outage.

I didn't realize it at first.  Upon my eyes fluttering to their open position, I noticed a couple of things in rapid succession.  The first was that it seemed quiet--but then again, it was morning in our new Mobile, Alabama, home, a solidly brick house with a decent quantity of sound-proofing.  Second, my bladder was full, full, full.  The second sensation rapidly overwhelmed the first, and so I staggered toward the bathroom along a path I'd already walked a few times that was luckily rather well back-lit by the morning sun streaming through the open window shade.

As usual, I closed the bathroom door first so as to not disturb my beautiful wife's slumber, and only when the door latch caught did I flip the light switch to its on position.

Nothing happened.

Now, I wasn't entirely awake yet.  That, and my mind was occupied in dealing with the screaming sensation coming from my bladder.

Slowly it dawned on me that what should've happened--a bathroom appearing before my very eyes--hadn't, and that could only mean one of two things: either the bathroom had been taken away in the middle of the night, or the light switch was broken.  So I did the only thing any sane person would do: I reached over, flipped the light switch back off, and then moved it back up again.

Again I was shocked by the amount of nothingness that happened.

By this point I was coming out of my morning stupor enough to wonder if it could be a power thing--I didn't take those electrical engineering classes at West Point for nothing, after all--but also by this point my bladder was starting to wrap itself around my entire abdominal cavity and do its best boa constrictor impersonation.  Luckily I knew pretty much where the toilet was, and I'd learned a secret trick long ago that drastically improves my aim first thing in the morning, especially in the dark. 

(don't tell anyone, but I'll share it with you--the secret trick is called sitting down.  I manage to avoid hitting the seat and the floor 100% of the time when I do that little amazing trick--just, never in public.  I am, after all, a manly man)

Bladder finally satisfied, I sallied forth to discover the extent of the not-noise.  Our bedroom ceiling fan was off, I noticed for the first time.  It's almost always on, and though it's not a noisy one, its soft shwoop-shwoop is noticeable in its absence, once you--um, notice it.  The main bathroom similarly didn't have any light no matter how many times the switch was flicked.  Every appliance in the kitchen was dark, and even the little guy in the refrigerator refused to turn that light on when I opened the door.

Definitely, the power was out, I realized as I closed the refrigerator door.  See how much good that excellent EE education I received was doing for me?

I tried using the spiffy cell phone app the power company has to check it.  Problem is, Mississippi Power and Alabama Power are so close together--literally--that they use the same system, apparently, and so when I signed in I got a "well, of course your power is out; your account was closed five years ago," message.  No, no, no--not that account in Biloxi, this one here in Mobile, I told my cell phone, which for once didn't prove itself smarter than me.

Finally I called the actual phone number, and right away they told me that there was, in fact,a power outage, and that crews were working on it, and that power was expected to be restored within a couple of hours.

Ahhhhh, I was finally able to say.  Coming up: a couple hours of--well, of quiet, and today I'm working the late shift and don't have to be in till afternoon, which meant that I could enjoy the entirety of it.

What was I to do?

Sleep, was the obvious answer, and so I did the only sane thing I could think of.  I went back to bed.

Have a great day, and--oh, by the way, have a great 2015!