Memorial Day – 2016

I am so ridiculously busy.  Too many things to do, not enough time to do it all, and even less motivation to get it all done on top of that.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep moving when it feels like your outnumbered, outgunned, and the whole world is out to get you.

But you know what I always have time for?

Memorial Day is a holiday to cherish the blood lost for our freedom and our nation’s ideas.  This year is an election year and we will most likely have the choice between a rat and a fink; which makes it just like every other election year.  But one thing we must always remember is…no matter who sits in that oval office, no matter who bickers in the Capitol halls, no matter what asinine robed monkeys slam gavels in the hallowed halls of our courts…there are brave soldiers fighting at home and abroad to make sure that the fight never makes it home.

My military record is not what I had wished it to be when I signed those enlistment papers…cripes, thirteen friggin’ years ago!  Nonetheless, I still call those men my brothers.  I may not have had the opportunity to serve alongside each and every one of them in the fields of Afghanistan, to have their back at Fallujah, or even to shovel papers across their desk at Norfolk (the only one of those three I’ve even been to).  But I work with them in the civilian market every day, and every day I know that they did what I wasn’t allowed to – defended our nation, whatever the nation may have been or may become.  Luckily most of the jarheads I signed those enlistment papers alongside made it home.  And to the ones who didn’t…that’s what this holiday is all about.

I might not have a military record to put any pride in, but thanks to those who do I have the luxury of sitting on my stupid ass and writing for a hobby and maybe eventually for a legitimate living.  The least I can do is offer up a story, right?

I’m not saying its good, I’m not even saying it’s worth your time.  But it’s what I came up with in the heat of the moment and it will give you something to pass the time while the hotdogs are grilling.  It goes best with Peter Hollen’s rendition of I See Fire from a few years ago, since I had it on repeat while I wrote it a year ago.  You see I had shelved the idea, because I didn’t think it was good enough to warrant the thought behind the holiday.  But then I figured…nothing I could possibly do with a keyboard would amount to what the men and women who sat beside me and signed those same papers promised to do.  So why not just suck it up and give ’em something to read, right?

Here it goes…

“13 Hours of Fire”

Richard C. Shaffer

          Mortars rained down on our position for thirteen straight hours. It got to the point that we actually cherished the bombs dropping almost on top of us. We knew their mortars had a range of five-hundred meters. And we were six-hundred meters away from them. We were also surrounded one two sides by them and two other sides by cliffs. On top of this stupid, useless, pointless hill.
          “Well sure, a thousand years ago it would have been pointless, but now we have radios.” That Rutger, a mind like an encyclopedia. He couldn’t shoot straight, but hell most Riflemen can’t – ironically enough. Nah, that’s not true, the Ready-boys are just the easy targets. Rutger’s actually a great radio guy.
          “Save it, Rutger!” I’d never tell him that to his face, though; don’t want the kid to get a swelled head or anything.
          “Shut up!” When the Squad leader tells a group of marines to shut up after thirteen straight hours of bombardment, you know damn well what the other eleven marines do.
          “Why, you can’t hear the ear-shattering explosions over us chit-chatting?” That’s right…in a group of eleven jarheads, at least one of them will have a smart comeback. In this case it was Santoro. Actually it’s always Santoro. Santoro wasn’t born with a mouth – he was born with a sphincter on his face: It just always spews out crap.
          “That’s the thing…the bombardment stopped.” Sarge was right, his name was Steven. No, not Stevens with an ‘s’, just Steven. He always said it was a typo when his family came through Ellis Island six generations ago. Apparently the guy jotting down his grandfather’s name got almost all the way through Stevenson and then his pencil broke.
          “Did they run out of ammo?” You can always hand it to Jan – pronounced like John – to ask the stupid question. Only guy I knew who we all called by his first name. Probably because nobody could pronounce his last name. I mean, really though, who can remember Lance Corporal Mahajan Krishnamurti? I’m lucky if I can remember my own name, much less all that.
          “I find that highly dubious.” Seriously Rutger, who uses a word like ‘dubious’ in regular conversation?
          “I have a strange feeling they’re getting ready to charge the hill.” Gutierrez at it again, he’s never the bearer of good news, or good ideas for that matter. He was the one who convinced me to wear my drawers into the shower the first day of Basic – told me that’s how everyone did it.
          What an ass I was, walking in there, getting my underwear wet and then a whole crew of naked dudes walk in and give me ‘that’ look. You know the look! The one where nobody wants to laugh, in case you’re a little special in the head and they don’t want to be offensive, but where if they don’t laugh they’ll have an aneurysm.
          Yeah, that look.
          “We laid traps all the way up both accessible sides of the hill.” Finally! Some good news – thanks to Martinez, of course. Second in command for a reason, that man!
          “Rosen, see anything coming from the west?” Sarge asked our best marksmen to poke his head out the nearest window. You see we were in a twelve by twenty-three foot half-bombed out old radio tower.
          That’s why we were here. We were trying to get a good enough signal for an Evac. We got caught up in a firefight we couldn’t handle and pulled out of the engagement this morning. Now it was after midnight – so I guess it was technically yesterday morning.
          “Nuttin’ to da west.”
          “Shepherd, anything to the south?” Sarge asked.
          “Shepherd!” Sarge’s voice was even angrier than usual.
          “Shepherd, seriously…if you’re going to narrate our last few hours alive, could you not talk aloud while you write in that stupid journal?”
          “Oh, yeah, sorry Sarge.” I said, feeling ever the ass I usually did. I glanced out the window just above my head and saw something I really didn’t want to.
          “Two light sources, five-hundred meters out. Moving this way.”
          An explosion ripped through the night in the distance and I watched several flare ups of rifle fire around it. One of Martinez’s mines. I turned back to the group with a dumbfounded smile. “Correction, one light source now.”
          “Those traps won’t hold them forever.” Martinez was fiddling with two rifle magazines – the last two he had – as he spoke.
          “But they will buy us time.” Sarge plopped down to his knees and patted Rutger on the shoulder. “Any signal, yet?”
          “Weather’s cleared up some, but they say its still thundering over the carrier.” Our resident radio man gave a solemn shrug. “The wind’s too strong for the choppers to fly.”
          “No point in killing a whole flight crew to save twelve marines, right?” The hero in me wanted to agree with Gutierrez – the coward in me wanted to swat him in the lip. I chose to remain stoically silent.
          “We’ve got three wounded and twelve total bodies to evacuate.” Sarge summed it up pretty well. “We’d need two choppers, three maybe.”
          “They wouldn’t be able to pick us up here anyway.” I said…wait I said that? What was I saying? That’s terrible news; that’s Santoro’s job!
          “Shepherd’s right.” That was not the thing I wanted Martinez to agree with me on!
          “Between the mortars and the RPGs any chopper that sits still is going to join us on the ground.” Sarge gripped Rutger’s shoulder tightly. “Jets can fly in the rain, see if you can get them to drop something on our friends down there.”
          “Drop what?” Asked Rutger.
          “Something unfriendly.” Gutierrez, you clever dog you!
          “I expect we’ve got about twenty minutes before they get within range to cause us problems.” Rosen fiddled with his rifle. He’d fallen when he tripped over a piece of rubble and landed rifle-first. Something cracked inside and he was stuck firing single-shot. Pull the trigger, rack the bolt, pull the trigger, rack the bolt. Not fun in a firefight against an AK-47.
          “Just enough time to have a last meal.” I said as I pulled an MRE out of my side pouch. It had been breakfast, but I only ate the main course.
          “What you still got?” Asked Gutierrez.
          “Poundcake, some cranberries, and ‘cherry powdered fruit drink’ which all sound less delicious than the last.” I shrugged and tore open the cranberries.
          “I’ll trade you for the poundcake.” Gutierrez offered.
          “What ya got?” I was open to trade – why not, wasn’t like I was going to get the chance to digest it.
          “Twelve bullets.”
          “What am I gonna do with twelve bullets?” I asked.
          “I dunno, but that’s all I got left.” Gutierrez shrugged.
          “Aah, what the hell. Take it.” I was feeling generous. That and I was really digging the cranberries for some reason. “My canteen’s empty, anybody want to split some with me? I’ll share my delicious cherry fruit drink.”
          “I can do you one better.” Carmichael sat up from his spot on the side of the room. He was one of our wounded – took shrapnel to the leg from a rocket. Rutger and Sarge carried him half a mile to this bunker – more like a tomb now, with what we all knew was coming.
          “Oh?” I was curious what could be better than stale water and cherry-flavored kool-aid. “What ya got? C’mon now, I’m a business man.”
          “Somebody do me a favor and reach into my left ass pocket.” Carmichael struggled to roll enough for Jan to pull out a small metallic flask. He held it up with a raised eyebrow. Carmichael beamed with pride for smuggling the booze on campaign. “Eight ounces of the best, cheapest, grain-alcohol I could trade a pack of smokes to a local for.”
          “You don’t smoke.” Noted Jan.
          “That’s why it was a fantastic deal.” Carmichael winked, then winced from the pain in his leg. “I was gonna wait and open it when we got back for a celebratory shot. But I figure no point in wasting good, terrible booze, right?”
          “What do ya say, Sarge?” Martinez snatched the flask from Jan’s hands.
          “Toss it here.” Sarge caught the flask and opened it up, sniffing the contents. He shuddered and looked at Carmichael with the most incredulous look I’ve ever seen him summon. “You sure this is booze and not antifreeze, right?”
          “Eh?” Carmichael shrugged with a laugh. “Same thing, if you get desperate enough, right?”
          Sarge pulled out his canteen and dumped the contents of the flask into it.
          “Hey! Don’t ruin my hooch with your disgusting water!” Carmichael huffed as he laid back to rest his leg.
          Sarge opened the canteen and sniffed it again. Martinez walked over and took a whiff. “What do you think?”
          “I think if we drink this, they’re gonna find twelve dead bodies when they finally get up here.”
          “Shepherd, toss me that pouch!”
          “Cherry-bomb incoming!” I soft balled the drink flavoring to him and he added it to the canteen.
          Sarge gave it one last shake and then offered a canteen cap full to each one of us. We all stared at the pungent liquid with a mixture of unease and tranquility; disgust and desire; want and wanton disinterest.
          “I’ll give it the first taste.” Carmichael was gonna die of liver failure by the time he was forty anyway, he might as well have been the the first to die from his own blood-red poison. He quaffed the capful and shuddered as it spread through his system.
          “How’s it taste?” Rosen asked.
          “Not friggin’ cherries, I’ll tell ya that much!” Carmichael coughed and licked his chops. “Seconds, barkeep?”
          Sarge chuckled and poured the final few drops into Carmichael’s cap. I stood up, just a step away from the window so as not to attract unwanted bullets, and raised my capful. “A toast then, gentlemen. A toast as we sip our last snifter of wine?”
          “What ya got, writer boy?” Santoro sniffed his capful and shook his head in disbelief.
          “Well…” I summoned every ounce of skill I learned in High School Journalism class and gave what we all figured would be the last speech of my life.
          “If this it to end in fire, then we should all burn together. America’s sons, America’s daughters.”
          “Ain’t no girls here, Shep.”
          “Rutger counts.”
          “Hey, I got two older sisters, you think I’ve never been forced to wear a dress before?”
          “I know things about you I never wanted to, Rutger.”
          “You’re welcome, Sarge.”
          I continued… “And if we should die tonight. Then we should all die together. Raise a glass of wine…for the last time.”
          “Should we die…we’ll die together, as brothers.” Sarge raised his cap and emptied it into his mouth. We all followed suit. Never mentioned to them I stole half those lines from a movie’s soundtrack. They either didn’t know or didn’t care. We loaded the last few rounds we had into our guns and came up with a plan.
          We would offer up a fighting withdrawal as we dragged the wounded to the cliff-face and rope down while the enemy was still preparing to rush us. It was stupid, it was deadly, but it was the best idea we had. Martinez and Gutierrez set up their last two mines at the doors of the bunker and we all crept out into the darkness.
          “Stay low, stay quiet.” Sarge ordered as he sent the first man down the cliff, then the second. Then we started hoisting the wounded three down to them. It was straight into the water, but there were some rocks to cling to. We didn’t have much to keep us afloat, but we had a better chance of floating away than we did surviving the impending assault.
          We were half down when it was my turn. I handed my rifle to Gutierrez. “In case something happens, I’ve got a full clip.”
          “Happy trade, Shep.” Gutierrez handed me his half-empty rifle and I strapped the rope to my waist. I was just about head down when one of the mines at the shack went off. We all looked up as the flash of light and smoke lit up the sky.
          The shrubs near the makeshift radio tower lit up like torches; a deathly auburn color. Realization dawned on us about the same time it dawned on them – we could see each other now. Martinez brought up his rifle and opened fire into the group, taking three of them down before they could return fire.
          Gutierrez popped two rounds to the right side of the shack and then tossed a grenade around the left. All I could see were the shadows of limp bodies flying off the side of the eastern cliff. I brought up my rifle, but Sarge stepped in front of me. His eyes shone of fearless protection, like a mama bear with a hunter in her den. “Get going!”
          I felt his hand on my chest as he pushed me off the side of the cliff. It took me a second to realize what had happened before I grabbed the line and slowed myself. It was too rough though, I slammed into the cliff-face and dropped into the water.
          The world moved in slow motion, and to the soundtrack of that damn movie no less. I couldn’t remember all the words as the water lapped over my face and I felt myself sinking.
          Should my brothers fall – then surely I’ll do the same.
          That was close…close enough, at least.
          “I got you Shep!” Santoro’s voice pierced the vale of darkness as my head came back above the water. I gasped for air as he wrapped his arm around my shoulders. “Can you swim?”
          “Y-yeah.”
          “We gotta go.” We made the swim out into the dark waters. It was a rough night, but we were a lucky few. We got spotted by an air crew an hour after dawn. We were rescued.
          Twelve men sat in that bunker, twelve men shared a brotherly toast, and eight made it home. Steven, Gutierrez, Martinez, and Rosen. They were the reason any of us made it home. They are the limbs we walk upon every day. They are the beats of our heart, the air in our lungs.
          They were our brothers. Through the fire, through the night. Brothers, always.

~RCS

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