"Jesus Christ!" the staff sergeant gleefully bellowed at us as we shoveled wet sawdust into the backs of army two-and-a-half-ton trucks with snowshovels. "I love it when they send me scouts! They get shit done! Don’t they get shit done?"
He nudged his buddy, an E5-grade sergeant, who seemed unimpressed by anything about the detail.
"Yeah," the staff sergeant resumed. "Scouts know how to get shit done! Unlike tankers. I hate it when they send me a gad-damned tanker."
He turned to his other side, scowling downward at the malingering recruit who’d elected to prostrate himself across a log.
"You are the saddest sonofabitch I’ve ever come across, private," he informed the tanker recruit who seemed insouciant to anything the cadre on the detail offered him — all of it harsh.
The staff sergeant pointed a flattened hand toward me and the recruit I’d swung my rifle butt at during bivouac, well-connecting with the side of his head — his jaw, certainly — sending him into the snow.
"Truthfully," our troop’s commanding officer had told us as we stood before him in his office after we’d returned to the billets from the field, "it was a flat-out battery case. You could be in the stockade in a hot minute, Camack!"
He turned to the other guy, a recruit belonging to another platoon who was notorious for trying to catch the mistakes of his camerades so he could correct them before lecturing them on the importance of-
"But I’ll tell you something, private: if you’d have been sneaking ‘round the woods at night, hell-bent on sneaking up on me, I might’ve done the same thing. So. What is it? What should we do, here?"
I’d slipped backward in the snow as I’d swung my rifle at the guy, so he’d not been hurt seriously. The air to the CO’s question seemed to remind the kid of this while insinuating the kid’s own culpability. I’d not swung more than the once, and the other private was a documented turd, as talk around the troop spread with tales of his creeping and correcting. It hadn’t won him many friends. And the training cadre themselves were never too keen of a splitter.
The following day, he and I were assigned the excruciating detail of being loaded into a deuce-and-a-half and taken to an area lumber mill, where we lifted sopping sawdust above our heads over the tailgates of trucks in the melting snow that revealed its red Kentucky mud with every bootstep, mud that turned into a quagmire as the day progressed.
"Gad-damn, I love me some scouts!" the staff sergeant marveled. "You outta be thankful one of them doesn’t stomp through that mud from over there to kick your ass into it, Parker!" he barked downward at the tanker recruit, still malingering upon his log at the staff sergeant’s side.
"I don’t care," Parker defiantly answered, shifting his body into a new position.
Another truck had showed up; my target had gone over to painfully snowshovel sawdust into the back of it while I and Thomas remained.
Thomas was a photonegative to our surroundings, a black kid from Jamaica by way of New York City. I never knew how long he’d been in the U.S. before immigrating, but his accent was still heavy with its native tune and wonderful and I’d not ever come across him without a smile on his face which showed like an arc light, along with his bright eyes, through the darkest of skin I hve ever known on a person. He always stood ramrod straight, with his head cocked a bit to the rear, his chin up.
"Heh, heh, heh," he would boldly chuckle with that Jamaican voice of his, the joy pouring from his face into all who faced it. I loved the man and have always wondered what had happened to him after I’d left the army.
"Gad-dammit, look at those scouts load that sawdust, Parker, you sorry ass…" bellowed the staff sergeant of Thomas and I.
Thomas leaned over to me, his characteristic glow missing from his face. “I wil never get used to this cold-“
"Quiet, shitballs!" the staff sergeant shouted. "Or you’ll be shoveling sawdust until your wives are collecting your gad-damned pensions!"
He singled me out. “You got a wife, private? You’re too ugly to have a wife.”
"No, sergeant," I replied.
“‘No’ what? That you don’t have a wife or that you’re not ugly? Because I’ve got some news for you if you think otherwise.”
"When do we get to eat?" Parker whined fom his log.
"Shut up, you!" the staff sergeant barked, having turned with a finger jabbed toward the malingerer.
"What’s all this sawdust for, anyway?" my target asked the staff sergeant, from behind the other truck.
"The colonel wants a new exercise pit. You wanna discuss it with him, private?"
My target did not.
My buddy Dieter, just behind Thomas and I, quietly chuckled.
It had started to rain, melting the snow and wettening the red mud around our boots worse than it already was, which was bad-enough. The sawdust had become almost impossible to lift with those big-ass shovels, and daylight was getting shorter.
"Okay, troops," the E5 called out. "Sling those shovels and mount up!"
Parker immediately shot upward from his log and darted for one of the trucks, followed by the rest of us, muttering under our breath to each other at what a shitty time it would soon be, cleaning our boots.
"I think I need new ones," Thomas chuckled deeply.
We helped each other up the back of the truck and over the tailgate, taking seats on the sidebenches.
Dieter leaned forward to me. “By the way, I forgot to thank you for this opportunity.” Our drill sergeant had decided that a couple of my buddies should join me in my punishment. Dieter was my closest buddy, my battle buddy; we’d become pretty tight. Our racks were in the same bay of our squad’s room in the building in which we were billetted. Thomas, though, was in a room or two over. Yet it was Thomas who somehow got picked whenever I did for some vile thing. Dieter usually escaped the crappy details. Or that’s how I remember it. I’ve tried to analyze the hows of why any of us may have been selected for shitty details aside from bad behavior. I just seemed to stick out like a little goof. In hindsight, some of the cadre actually liked having me around because I busted my ass. But that was- It was a show. That was after I’d gotten told I was going home. I hadn’t wanted to appear like a sad malingerer like that Parker, out there at that muddy sawmill. Otherwise, I was pretty good at getting out of having to do as much work as I could. I’d even paid others to go to details in my place — often for just a few bucks. Money was tight at times; a buck or two was a lot between pay draws.
As the truck rode up out of the holler on the logging road back to Ft. Knox, Thomas assured me that I wasn’t ugly, but he hadn’t found me attractive-enough to turn over from women to men. Which may have been one of the sweetest things anyone’s ever said to me in the back of an army truck.
My target from bivouac sat down the opposite bench, away from us 3rd Platoon boys.
He seemed so isolated. So lonely. Alone. I felt bad for him. I truly did. Not said in that condescending way people say that when they want to isolate someone from themselves. I just don’t think anyone should have to live like that. Maybe that’s why he tries to flip shit all the time. To flip himself onto the what he imagines to be the pop from what he believes is the bottom. I know others like that. We all do, probably. Anyway, he disappeared into my past after I’d left the army, along with Thomas and Dieter, though Dieter tried to maintain contact. I couldn’t do it. Though I imagine the Parkers of the world have little problem with such things. Sometimes, anyway. Until conscience forces their faces backward and their eyes onto what they’d passed on or neglected.
"I’ve got my orders for West Germany," Dieter wrote. "Send some Copenhagen!" he pled, desperately.
I folded the letter neatly and returned it to its envelope, pushing it into my jacket’s left breast pocket before adjusting my scarf and knit cap, leaning back onto my old army-issue duffel on that bus station parking lot’s asphalt, looking upward into the clear winter sky, the cold air around me crisply stinging my cheeks.
The fog that seemed to have been hanging over northern Nevada had lifted and there were those stars above me, twinkling. Watching over me as I fell asleep on that cold ground. Having hit the bottom, come to rest upon it.