My Back Hurts, My Boot’s Too Tight…

I had watched several documentaries, read books and had heard more stories than I could remember on the subject. Some people refer to it as boot camp. This is only accurate if you have enlisted in the Marine Corps. For the Army, it is simply basic training. The Army has several basic training posts located around the US. Fort Sill, Oklahoma was to be my personal gateway to becoming a soldier.

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I had always wanted to be a Marine. The Army wasn’t ever really an option. I looked into the Navy very briefly in high school but that wasn’t for me. The recruiting station in Spring Valley, NY contained representatives from all 4 branches (sorry Coast Guard). The offices were staggered down the hallway; Marines were first door on the left, Navy across the hall, Army second on the left and Air Force on the right. I had gone through the entire enlistment process with the marine Corps at the age of 17. I decided between my 11th and 12th grade year that I could wait no longer. My Father had passed away earlier that year and all that was required at that age was the blessing of my Mother, which she gave hesitantly. I tested, I was inspected and then I waited. The plan was that I would receive my GED (good enough diploma) at some point during my time in service. I was okay with that. Long story short, I decided that maybe I should finish high school after all. I talked to my recruiter and told him I wasn’t ready. my contract was terminated and I was allowed to back out and continue school. Fast forward two years and I was again ready to sign on the dotted line and serve my country. I arrived at the recruiting center at roughly 11:30. As I locked my Jeep and walked to the front door, there was Sergeant Vega. Back against the wall, one foot propped up behind him. He was smoking a cigarette and after a long exhale asked me, “What’s up, buddy? Here to join the Army?”

Absolutely not, I replied. Not that I had anything against the Army. My Grandfather served during World War II and my Uncle served as well. I grew up hearing stories of the Army. I just always felt that I was going to break the family mold. I was going to be the first Marine (An honor that actually went to my second youngest Brother, still serving in the Marine Reserves). No, Sir, I was there to talk to the Marine recruiter. Sergeant Vega was quick to inform me that the gentleman I was there to see had just left for lunch and would not be returning for at least forty-five minutes. For those of you that may not have ever gone through the experience, the initial step of enlisting in the military is like the first step through the threshold of an airplane. You think about it weeks prior, the anxiety builds and you finally resolve yourself to make the leap. Well this time I was told I couldn’t jump just yet. Sergeant Vega knew where I was mentally. He saw it every day and knew it was the right time to strike. I hope Sergeant Vega got into sales after his Army career because he could have sold a ketchup Popsicle to a Woman in white gloves. He was good. “I got a deal for you. Come into my office and listen to my pitch. I only need 10 minutes of your time and you don’t have to tell me anything about yourself. I won’t even ask your name. You like what you hear and we’ll talk more. You don’t and I’ll walk over to the Marine office for you and hold the door. What do you say?” 45 minutes later I was signing the paperwork.

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November 20th, 1995 the bus came to a halt outside of a very plain building. The only thing that stood out was a sign that had the words “SOLDIERING STARTS HERE”. Now, like I said earlier, I had prepared for this moment. I had studied and read and watched and listened. I braced for the sea of “brown rounds” to flood the bus. There was nothing but silence. The bus hissed and the door creaked open as the driver announced on the speaker, “Just go sit on those benches there and someone will be along to get you soon”. Fear and anticipation turned to confusion. We disembarked the bus and sat on the benches as instructed. Then, we waited. After some time had passed, a rather small Female arrived and politely introduced herself and explained her function. She was there to guide us through the indoctrination process. There would be paperwork, equipment issue, medical testing, inoculations, rules, regulations, more paperwork and uniform fitting. This process would take three days and it was called reception. After that, basic training would begin. The day’s events were conducted with a heightened sense of purpose but nothing too rigorous. There was a feeling that every person that had to deal with us had done so with a thousand other recruits previously and couldn’t possibly care less about us or what we were getting in to. They had already been there and done that. It was our problem now. As promised, reception lasted three days and by the end of it I had lost my initial apprehension. I had begun growing accustomed to the routine and felt like it wouldn’t be as bad as I had first thought. This was going to be great.

Towards the end of the third day we were thrown a loop. Our liaison had us pack up all of our belongings and carry our things outside of the barracks building in which we were currently billeted. I hoisted my large ruck sack onto my back and tried to carry my two duffle bags in each hand. Keep in mind, we had been issued everything that would be needed, both clothing and equipment, for the duration of the basic training phase and it was all in my three over sized bags. Transporting them was tricky. I decided it was easier if I hoisted one of my duffles onto my back, slung the other on my chest and carried the ruck sack in my right hand. It made standing and walking difficult but it balanced the weight better. I shuffled outside and got in line with the rest of the recruits. After a few minutes, our transportation arrived. We were told to fill into the trucks, which would take us across post to our basic training facility. Notice I said truck and not bus. What we were expected to load into was aptly named a cattle truck. Mainly because it was used for transporting cattle or in this case, a bunch of would be soldiers who had no idea what was coming next.

Your chariot has arrived.

Your chariot has arrived.

We filled into the truck. Starting towards the back and packing in towards the front. It was so tight I almost couldn’t breath. I was lucky and ended up about three rows from the large doors at the back of the truck. Once the entire class (Or as we would later be called a platoon) was stuffed to capacity inside the trucks, the liaisons shut the two large doors in the back and one smaller door on the passenger side, sealing us inside. No one spoke. It was pitch black and it was uncomfortably tight which made several of the young men visibly anxious. I was one of them. The truck lurched forward which caused everyone to shift towards the rear of the truck. Luckily we were packed so tight there wasn’t room to fall down. We rode in the back of that truck for what seemed like an hour. I found out much later that it was only a 5 minute ride from Reception Battalion to our basic training barracks. Funny how the mind will play tricks on you when you are robbed of your senses. After some time, the truck came to a halt and the engine was shut off. It was silent once again. Silent and dark and honestly, scary as hell. The handle on the back doors clicked, the doors groaned open and before my eyes could adjust to the sunlight which had suddenly flooded the once black space we occupied, I could hear their voices. My eyes adjusted to see a swarm of brown, round brim hats all tipped forward on neatly kept heads. The voices didn’t necessarily say anything or at least anything that was discernible to my untrained ear. They barked all in unison but all barking different things.  It was total confusion. Agitated by the fact that no one had yet attempted to disembark the cattle truck, the barks became fever pitched. We go the idea. Those in the back of the truck pushed forward, not wanting to be the last off and those in the front pushed back, not wanting to be the first. I was sandwiched and the breath was squeezed out of me. In a near panic, I was able to get enough room to help the guy in front of me find his motivation as I gave him a good shove towards the outside. He lost his balance and fell out of the truck. His weight,no longer there to support mine, caused the pressure behind me to become much greater. I toppled forward landing on top of the duffle bag on my chest in the street. I felt like a gazelle in the African plains. Boots hit the ground all around me and continued on. “Sorry, buddy. Can’t help you. We appreciate your sacrifice”. I picked myself up and moved with the crowd, being berated and threatened all the way, until I made it to the drill pad and found my place. The Drill Sergeants made their way through the ranks, finding anyone that looked weak, fat, skinny, scared, confident or just breathing. I stood and waited my turn. One of them stopped in front of me. The brim of his hat touched the side of my forehead. I looked straight ahead, not moving. He stood there, hat brim and his gaze both boring holes into my skull, waiting for me to show him something to attack. I gave nothing. I assume he was tired of wasting his time with me so I was given the simple command of, “drop”. I began performing the first of what would amount to thousands of push ups over the next several months. We were all ordered to stand at the position of attention and listen closely as the Drill Sergeants talked. The Drill informed the platoon that he was aware of seven recruits that had come from New York State. My stomach dropped, knowing I was one of the New York Seven (as we would later be fondly referred to). The NY 7 was ordered to form up in front of the formation. We stood in a row, all seven staring out at the rest of the recruits. Keep in mind, basic training is a collection of men from all corners of the US, the World in fact. The Drill Sergeant paced in front and behind us and addressed the class:

Take a good look recruits. Some of you may have never seen a New Yorker before. Memorize these names and faces because these are you thieves, your liars and your punks. These seven are the reason we have to lock our lockers. They will steal your stuff when you’re not looking. Be wary, Gentlemen, for these seven will sleep with your wife or girlfriend while you are deployed. Keep a very close eye on them.

Some of the looks we got from the other recruits were nothing short of frightening. I was horrified. We had been there less than an hour and I was hated by complete strangers already. I found out later that the Drill Sergeants periodically had problems with New Yorkers in the past and developed this exercise to control any of my more outspoken fellow Yankees. It worked exactly as I’m sure they had designed it to. For the next several days, until we were all able to actually get to know each other, the class watched us as we even more carefully watched them in return.

New York City?! Get a rope!

New York City?! Get a rope!

What came after was a complete blur. We were led into the barracks and assigned bunks. We were led to the chow hall and fed. We were led to classrooms and instructed. All the while we were screamed at, berated and forced to hydrate continually. If you know anything about my upbringing (read My Mother is an Irish Ninja) then you know getting screamed at and berated was not a foreign concept. I knew I could handle that part. It was the forced hydration that caused me to get noticed. Every recruit carried a canteen. Before every task we had to fill the canteen. Then after being what was referred to as “smoked” (which consisted of rigorous physical activity) we were required to drink the contents of said canteen. After a few cycles of this routine, we were led to a classroom for a two-hour block of instruction. About ten minutes in, my bladder began to ache. I held out as long as I felt I could and when I could stand it no more, my hand went up. Instantly a Drill Sergeant descended upon me, demanding to know why I was attempting to interrupt this very important speech about whatever. I timidly requested to use the bathroom. Well, the Army doesn’t have any bathrooms. Believe me, I was as surprised as you. Not a single bathroom on post. The Drill Sergeant left me confused and aching to pee. I waited a bit longer until it became unbearable. My hand went up again. Without speaking the same Drill came up behind me and hoisted me with one hand out of my chair and drug me by my collar out the door and down the hall. As he walked and I struggled to keep up he colorfully and repeatedly informed me about how he now owned my ass. My bladder had apparently sealed my fate. I was led to a door and subsequently shoved head long through. As I flew past the door I noticed a sign which read “Latrine”. Right… no bathrooms, I got it.  For the first time in my life I had to attempt to urinate with a very intimidating person yelling insults at me. It would not be the last. Once I returned to class I was able to disappear back into anonymity as someone else caught the Drill Sergeant’s attention.

The rest of Basic was pretty much how you’d imagine. We fell into a routine of physical training, sleep deprivation and hunger mixed with weapons training, hand to hand combat, bayonet training and a slew of other instructions to transform us into US Soldiers. We were also assigned our specific Drill Sergeants. There was Sergeant Vader, he was our Senior Drill Sergeant. A tall, menacing man, he was in charge and everyone knew it without ever having to be told. He was surprisingly quiet and didn’t have to yell to get his point across. His approach was more psychological. Then there was Drill Sergeant Green. He was extremely motivating but aside from the mandatory ass chewing and smoke sessions, he was more of a positive influence. He seemed to give more pep talks and would deliver them exactly when we needed them most. The man was an incredible cadence caller as well. I always said that if he decided to stop torturing people for a living he would do well as an R&B singer. Lastly there was Drill Sergeant Dew, who reminded me of Scrappy from the Scooby Doo cartoons. Small, loud and intent on causing as much discomfort as possible. He genuinely seemed to dislike recruits and reinforced that belief as much as he could.

Basic Training moved fast. There was an overwhelming amount of information thrown at us but oddly, we all adapted. Most of us anyway. As the weeks went by we had two suicide attempts, several dropped for academic or physical reasons and several more dropped for being trouble makers. As our ranks got smaller the ones that remained grew closer. We began to work in unison. Things became fluid. Our run distances increased and no one complained, my sit up count neared triple digits on the physical fitness tests and push ups were done with increasing numbers and ease. Halfway through and I was able to hold the front leaning rest (The ready position for the push up) for twenty minutes without so much as a muscle twitch. We became faster, stronger, smarter and more confident. I learned my body could do an incredible amount more than my mind told me it could. I also mastered the art of sleeping in any circumstance during that time. I could sleep sitting, standing even walking. I could literally fall asleep while on a 15 mile road march. I was in top physical and mental condition or at least until that point of my life. I had mastered firing a rifle, throwing grenades, camouflaging, surviving and fighting. Then, before I knew it, it was over. Seemingly as quickly as it had begun, I was ushered across the graduation stage and welcomed to the big green machine. I was now a soldier.  The next step was what the Army refers to as “A.I.T.” or Advanced Individual Training. It’s basically where you learn to do the job that you will be doing during your time in the Army. I was off to Forward Observer School. The rumor was that A.I.T. was like college. There was classroom instruction, no Drill Sergeants and weekends off. Compared to the last few months, that sounded like paradise. Perhaps if I had enlisted as a mechanic, cook, admin or maybe in communications, that would have been true. For me and the 12 other new soldiers headed to the US Army Forward Observer school, the rumor couldn’t have been more wrong.

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“Paddy” is a Four letter Word

I know I’m a few weeks late with this but hey, better late than never. Saint Patrick’s Day has always been my favorite holiday. When I was a kid it was always a huge deal, not only coming from an Irish background but also living in New York as well. We would attend several of the local parades and there was always the traditional Irish foods. As I got older, I started venturing into the city to attend the NYC Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. When I moved to Texas, the tradition of celebrating my Irish heritage on a large scale traveled with me. The particular year I am about to tell you about, I found myself in a small college town in the beautiful Hill Country of central Texas. We begin the story at a local bar in said town. A few of us had gathered to formulate a plan for the big day. It was march 15th, two days to go. As was always the case in those days, beer and light conversation became whiskey and sworn oaths as the evening drew on. I’m not sure when or how exactly it came up but the decision was made that we would start early. We would start early and not stop. We decided on a test, not only of our individual fortitude but a test of our dedication to the celebration of our Irish heritage (Irish heritage had nothing to do with it. Consumption of alcoholic beverages does not constitute heritage. I was young and stupid). We had technically already begun. Now all we had to do was persevere. That was what we did. By the time the morning of March 17th had arrived, there had been an arrest, explosions, bodily injury, property damage and legal fees. To retell the entire story would take a level of memory that I just do not have. What I will do is tell you about two incidents. They may not be complete memories but I will share them as best I can. As always, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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It was roughly 2:45 in the morning on the 17th of March. We had been drinking at this point for over 24 hours straight with out so much as a nap. Most of the original participants had gone home. The challenge had become overwhelming and most of them just needed a short break. I didn’t blame them. I was questioning my own resolve by this point. I had reached a point of being so tired and having drank for so long that I was in a perpetual state of hungover. I felt horrible and the fact that I had fallen roughly 10 feet out of a tree earlier that evening (Wearing nothing but board shorts) added to the misery. There were only three of us left as we tried our hardest to hold out for daylight. We had roughly 5 hours until we could end the challenge with some Irish stew and a good long sleep. There was no music, there was no conversation. Leo, Scott and I sat on the couch under Leo’s garage, each of us silently sipping a beer. My eyes began to grow extremely heavy and I needed to move around. I stood up quickly, thinking I would startle the other two with such sudden movement but neither even noticed. Without a word I made my way into Leo’s house and straight to the cache of fireworks that had been collected over the many parties we had held there. It was a fairly sizable stash, about a grocery bag worth. I burrowed into the bag like a gopher. Past the roman candles, pawing through the bottle rockets, displacing the black cats. I finally found the treasure I was digging for. A sandwich baggie filled with M-80 fire crackers. I excitedly made my way back out to the front porch. With no warning I lit them, one at a time and threw them out into the street. BOOM! then another. BOOM! The town was dead silent which made the deafening crack of the M-80 seem a thousand times louder. This went on for about 15 minutes without interruption. I’m not sure if Leo and Scott even knew what was happening. I flicked my thumb across the flint roller of the lighter creating a flame. I stared at the fire, hypnotized for 2 or 3 seconds before I passed the wick over the flame, lighting the M-80. I noticed the flashlight to my left just as the fire cracker exited my hand and sailed into the street as over a dozen already had before. “Put your hands where we can see them”, they yelled as the flashlights blinded me. While trying orient myself and see who was playing this awful prank, I was able to catch a glimpse beyond the blinding beams of light to see two uniformed police officers. The badges didn’t frighten me. This was the second time in my life an officer of the law pointed a service pistol at me and I liked it equally if not less as much as the first time. In hind sight, they were responding to loud noises which, to the untrained ear, resembled gun shots. Completely understandable. As my hands went up and the now empty sandwich bag floated slowly to the ground I responded to their commands with, “It was fireworks, M-80’s, I was lighting them, it was me. my fault, officers”. Realizing there was no threat to their safety, they holstered their weapons. They also lowered their flashlights, thank God. There was one Female officer and one Male. The Female took the lead. “Why in the hell are you lighting M-80’s at 3 in the morning”, she asked. My response was simple and delivered in a way that made her question seem almost ridiculous to be asked. “Because… It’s Saint Patrick’s Day”. She looked confused. My answer apparently raised even more questions in her mind. After a few seconds she was able to get her thoughts back on track. “It is NOT Saint Patrick’s day”. My response was even more simple than the first, “Mmm hmm”. As she stared at me and shook her head, her previously silent partner decided to speak up. “Uh, it’s 3:10 in the morning, technically he’s right. It IS Saint Patrick’s Day”. I raised my eyebrows and gave him the “BINGO” finger point. She shot him a quick look and he said nothing else. It was at this point she asked for identification. I had almost forgotten that Leo and Scott were still sitting on the couch directly behind me. We each produced our ID and handed them to the officer. She called us in and one by one the dispatcher called us out. I was clear. Leo was clear. Scott, detain for a warrant. I looked over and he had preemptively stood up and placed his hands behind his back as he cussed out loud. As Scott was loaded into the back of the police car I was handed a ticket for violating the city fireworks ordinance which, by the end of it, cost me almost a thousand dollars. Not being able to continue at that point, Leo made his way to his bedroom and I fell hard onto the couch. It was time to accept defeat. Image

Sleep did not last long. I was able to close my eyes for about four hours but if felt like 3 minutes. I was being shook awake by Scott. I was at first angry by being woken up. My anger soon turned to confusion remembering that he had been loaded into a police car, what felt to me, like a few minutes prior. I attempted to focus and make sense of it all but my mind immediately retreated to the state it was in before my short nap, hovering somewhere between drunk and hungover. I was greeted with a tall can of Irish Stout. I cracked the top and drank half of the can in one gulp, the effect of which was not unlike Popeye eating a can of spinach. The next part of the story was told to me some time after the events themselves unfolded. At this point I’m not sure if Scott was still there or if he had left and someone else had taken his place. Either way, I’ll tell it to you as it was told to me. We only had roughly 30 minutes left until we were able to make our way to the pub and enjoy a bowl of Irish stew. it was the gold cup at the end of our three day endurance challenge. To kill time (and with it now actually being Saint Patrick’s Day, officially) Leo suggested shots of Irish whiskey. He sold it as though it was some sort of mortal sin for us to NOT have whiskey at 8 in the morning. As we agreed to share some spirits, something outside the window caught Leo’s eye. He sprang to life like a dog chasing a fire engine. We followed suit and quickly saw what he was so excited about. Walking down the street towards the college campus, was a young Woman in her early twenties, dressed in green. On any other day, this would have been enough for Leo. The thing in particular about this young Woman was her long, flowing, bright red hair. “HEY YOU” he called out to her. She stopped walking and looked at Leo, puzzled. “Come over here!”, he yelled. Surprisingly, she complied. He explained to her, with the same amount of dedication as he had shown us a few minutes prior, that it was imperative that she share a shot of whiskey with us. He begged and pleaded and finally, she agreed. There was no introductions. Leo grabbed her hand and led her, brushing right past us, into the living room. Please, keep in mind I have no recollection of the following events. As we all four touched glasses and downed our drinks, Leo noticed I was staring at the poor young girl. Shortly after, she noticed too. I’m going to switch to screenplay mode now. Makes it easier to type:

Girl – (To Leo) What’s wrong with your friend?

Me – What’s wrong with YOU?

Girl – Excuse me?

Me – You heard me. what’s wrong with you? You are an young attractive girl and you just wandered into a house with three guys you have never met before because one of them offered you alcohol? What would your Father say if he were here right now?

Leo – Oh God…

Girl – (Looking nervous at this point) Uhhhh…..

Me – Do you realize how incredibly irresponsible that is? Let alone dangerous? What if we were bad people? You are at a very important time in your life right now. You are away from home for the first time and these experiences will affect you later on. You need to be much wiser in your decision making. I think your Father would be extremely disappointed in you. Now, Happy Saint Patrick’s Day but we must bid you farewell. You need to get yourself to class immediately.

Leo – Really?

Girl – Okay. Sorry.

Me – No harm, no foul. Learn from the experience. God bless.

Leo – You’re an idiot.

That was about it. Off she went. I don’t think Leo ever saw her again, which was probably a good thing considering Leo turned out to be a pretty big scum bag within a few years after that. In hind sight, I guess I really helped that girl out. What can I say, I’m a hero of the people. You’re welcome, random girl’s Dad. After that we made our way to the pub and ordered a heaping bowl of Irish stew. It was delicious, I think. Honestly I have no idea. Cognitive thought didn’t return until about the 21st. People wonder why I don’t drink anymore…

 

We now resume our regular broadcast.

Well, hello there! Did you miss me? I know, it’s been a while. I’d love to tell you I was on a writing hiatus due to travelling the world, earning my fortune and / or putting the finishing touches on my novel. Sorry to disappoint. I was, however, taking some time for work (the paying kind), family and myself. Oh how I’ve missed chronicling my misadventures. I felt that it was time once again to wear out my keyboard and regale you with tales of moronic behavior. Now that I have begun to put this train wreck back on the tracks, stay tuned for some fun stuff headed your way. pleasestandby400

Random Stuff.

-When you click the button to close the screen on your iPhone, it produces the same sound as when you snap a picture. If you are using your iPhone as reading material or browsing the web while you are taking a dump, make sure to silence your phone. Unless you don’t mind the person in the stall next to you wondering, “What in the hell is that guy taking a picture of”.

- Remember, it is easy to be a big fish if you are the only one in the pond.

- When I was a child, my Mother would take us swimming at the local lake. As my Mother went out towards the deep water markers, she made a panicked yelp and swam quickly back to shore. She swore to the Lifeguards, who had rushed to her aid, that her foot had touched something that felt like hair. They scoffed at the idea. An hour later they pulled the body of a drowned swimmer from the lake. My Mother pretty much  sticks to pools.

- I once met Bill Maher on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas. I had the distinct pleasure of calling him an asshole to his face. He did not approve.

- One more for my Mom. As my Mother stood at the sink washing dishes from that evening’s dinner, she heard three consecutive “pops” from the woods behind the house. She immediately called 911 and reported gun fire. granted this took place during a particularly bad thunderstorm but the dispatcher sent a police unit regardless. The Officers took a statement and dismissed the sounds as thunder. The next day, two bodies were discovered in the woods, bound and executed. The method? Gun shot to the head. Apparently one missed. She was questioned as to how she knew how to distinguish a gun shot from thunder and was advised not to travel out of state for a while. Basically, if my Mom thinks there’s something dead around, go somewhere else because she’s probably right.

- When I was in high school I made the amazing discovery that Everlasting Gobstoppers were the exact size as paint-balls. This was one of several wonderfully bad ideas made throughout my teen years. Unrelated, the one time I was the recipient of the Heimlich Maneuver was due to an Everlasting Gobstopper. I believe it was the combination of these two reasons, the size of Gobstoppers was reduced. Yes, I take personal credit for that.

- This entry was a cheap ploy to keep you on the hook and for that, I apologize. There has been quite a bit going on in my personal life and at work which, unfortunately, cuts down on my writing time. FEAR NOT! There is A LOT of great stuff in the works. In the near future you will get to know all about; They Might Be Giants, a certain unplanned trip to NYC and what I would do if I if the world ended. That and much more! So stay tuned, be patient with me and I will not let you down! Remember, if you haven’t subscribed yet, now is a good time to do so. Tell you friends, tell your family, tell your neighbors, tell strangers! As always, I appreciate the support.

Soon... Very soon.

Soon… Very soon.

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Forward Observer Blues

In 1997 I volunteered for and was subsequently sent on a deployment to the Middle East. My four man team as well as one other team was loaned out to the Task Force. Our mission, without too much detail was to remind the Iraqi Army that the United States military still held a place there and were ready for any show of aggression. For the most part, the deployment was filled with long days of constant boredom. The weather took its toll on me immediately. As I crossed the threshold of the door way out of the plane it was like walking into a giant oven. The daytime temperature would peak, on some days, as high as 130 degrees. In stark contrast, the nighttime would drop to 80 degrees. While a cool 80 degrees sounds nice, consider that is a 50 degree difference and in that dry of a climate, it is one hell of a change. As I waited in line to make my exit from the aircraft that had brought us halfway around the world, I tried to enjoy the last few moments of the cool 74 degree plane cabin. When my turn came and I took my first step into the sweltering Kuwaiti landscape, I followed my immediate reaction which was to turn a full 180 degrees and try to push my way back into the plane. The flight attendant, never breaking her industry standard smile, spun me back around on my heels and gave me a gentle shove towards the open desert. I looked at her with a gaze that pleaded to let me back inside the cool confines of the cabin. She responded to my non verbal plea as she had done countless times before with travelers who did not wish to be where they had arrived. She lifted her right arm chest height and with a limp wrist waved to me as she held her smile. The reality of what I had signed up for came to me as the flight attendant nodded slightly and said, “buh bye”. I took a deep breath and exited the plane.kuwait

It took several weeks to become fully acclimated to the arid climate. It wasn’t so much getting used to it, as it was accepting that there was no where else to go. Short of an incapacitating injury, I was stuck. I learned to deal with it. During the hottest part of the day, operations would be suspended so we could shelter from the brutal heat. Hydration was crucial. I would drink gallons of water every day and it still didn’t feel like enough. I remember one particular morning I was attempting to shave. I poured some water from my canteen into a bowl and used it to wet my face. I applied shaving cream and searched for my razor in my shaving kit. With razor in hand, I looked into the mirror to see the shaving cream had disappeared. The morning air was so hot and dry that the shaving cream had dried up and flaked off of my face in the time it took me to retrieve my razor. To reach my intended goal of being clean shaven, I was forced to shave my face one patch at a time in 2″ x 2″ sections. This was how things went. Routine tasks became arduous. Weapons cleaning and maintenance became a never ending hassle. I would break down my weapon and meticulously clean all of the mechanical parts. I would set the parts out to prepare to reassemble the weapon and a gust of dry wind would whip through and slap a fresh layer of fine desert sand on every component. I would drop my shoulders, sigh and begin again. Vehicle maintenance became a never ending task. I was warned prior to my deployment by a soldier who had been to that region to bring Women’s pantyhose in my load out. The pantyhose could be placed over the vehicle air filter and prevent sand from being sucked up into the engine. Such a simple fix saved us countless hours of repairs. This was all during our time at the base camp. We didn’t spend much time there. Most of our time was manning a checkpoint at the northern border of Kuwait and Iraq. Manning the checkpoint was when the real boredom set in. There was nothing around us as far as the eye could see. There were two armored personnel carriers, one for each team. There was also a large concrete block which we assumed was to be used for cover in the unlikely event of a firefight. The only other distinguishable feature was a half collapsed building roughly the size of a convenient store. It was empty and I do not know what its former function was.

Our days at the check point were even more painful than at base camp. There were no discernible roads where we were. A vehicle would drive down the smoothest part of the desert and create tracks to follow, if another vehicle might have been following. The wind would blow and the tracks were gone. We weren’t at a check point so much as manning a small area of sand and protecting it from no one. We would go weeks without even seeing another vehicle and if a vehicle did finally approach, we would hurry to get geared up and ready only to watch them veer left or right and continue out of sight. We never gave chase as we were instructed not to. So our days were filled with attempts to cure the boredom. We talked endlessly about what we did before that Army. We talked about what each of us was going to do upon our return and we talked about Women. Constantly. We created games to make the time go by. One of my favorite games was one we didn’t have a name for but I will call the bullshit game. The object was to tell a very explicit story involving a sexual encounter. Upon completion of the story (it was a rule that the teller be allowed to finish the tale) the rest of the teams had to decide if the story was true or made up. There was no prize or even a winner. Another favorite was “Six Degrees of Separation”. The name of a target actor was given, then a beginning actor. From the name of the beginning actor the object was to link them with the target actor by stating other actors and the movie in which they played together until you arrived at the end. Normally the goal was to get to the target actor as quickly as possible. In our version we stretched it as long as we possibly could.

Not every minute of every day was spent playing games. There were times of work during the deployment. Maintaining one’s skills is always a necessity when designated as a combat soldier. Some days were filled with infantry training and tactics, physical training, map reading and land navigation as well as job specific training. On this particular day, we found ourselves partaking in any Forward observer’s favorite activity, expending artillery. The way it worked, or as it was explained, was that after the first Gulf War, the Kuwaiti leadership requested the US maintain a presence to thwart any chance of the Iraqi’s trying another invasion. One of the perks of the arrangement was that the Kuwaiti government would foot the bill for munitions. Ammunition does have a shelf life. Soldiers need to train. The way this works out is, we get the practice we need and the ammunition doesn’t go to waste. So there we were on an unremarkable day, like the past hundred or so had been before it, hot and miserable. With that much wide open desert, as long as we were vigilant to anyone or anything entering into the kill zone, everywhere could be used as an impact area. We alerted command that exercises were to begin and we were cleared hot. To provide shade, we backed the personnel carriers so the rear compartment faced the impact area. We dropped the ramps, making it parallel to the ground by propping an MRE box under it. Inside the APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) was a bank of radios on which we could communicate with Fire Direction Control who, in turn, would send out fire missions to the gun batteries. Our weapon system for the day would be the 155 mm Paladin mobile artillery platform. As I was nearing time for job re qualification, I was the first to man the radios and work up a fire mission.

There was no wind that day. The heat hung dry and stagnant. The glare from the sand in the distance hurt my eyes so I donned my sunglasses. They weren’t safety rated but I hated the ones Uncle Sam gave out at the time. I felt they made the wearer come off like a Little League Softball Coach circa 1983. With a map folded to expose only our operating area and resting on my lap, I began plotting the grid coordinates upon which I planned to drop some destruction. The first time I had ever successfully called in a live fire mission was indescribable. I don’t know that it was the same for everyone who achieved it but for me, the awesome display of power was terrifying and exciting at the same time. At 19 years old I was in control of a weapon system that could obliterate anything within range. We were trained to rain down munitions within a few meters of the intended target. More than once during training I would direct a single artillery shell directly on top of a target tank or other decommissioned equipment, which would cause a spark just before the explosion and send shrapnel and debris straight up into the air. This was called steel on steel. While some credit goes to the operator, this deadly accuracy is also a testament to the US Military’s technology and equipment. That was not the extent of our capabilities. It only went up from there. We were in control of systems that could wipe an entire square kilometer off of the face of the Earth.kaboom

Well within the designated time limit, my fire mission was ready to send. I took extra care, as I always did, to double check my grid coordinates. On two separate occasions in my time as an F.O. I was within ear shot of a nervous observer who had inadvertently confused our own location with that of his intended target. That the missions were not permitted to be sent and I am not a military statistic is due to the well trained Cadre from whom I learned my craft. My coordinates were solid. I keyed up the mic and began my fire mission. First was to make contact. Once established, announce the mission. Then there was a target description, what type of munition and how I wanted it delivered. Was it to be timed? Did it need to penetrate the surface and destroy a bunker, possibly? No, for this mission I just needed it to make a very big boom. HE or High Explosive rounds. The fire mission was sent and the FDC took their split second to type it up and send it electronically to the guns. Very shortly after that, the guns began to deliver my order. FDC alerted me to the first round leaving the gun by calling “shot, over” on the radio. The rounds were in the air. My next task was to observe the impacting rounds, make any necessary corrections and enjoy the show. The first round impacted about a thousand meters away, almost exactly on target. Happy with the results, I called FDC and ordered a “fire for effect”. The short definition of that is, send everything. Once again, “shot” was announced and I responded. The first two rounds landed perfectly in the impact area. Then all hell broke loose.

The sound was deafening. It was so sudden and so loud it actually caused physical pain throughout my head. Simultaneous to the noise, my APC was rocked so hard I was almost thrown out of my seat. Field manuals stacked neatly on make shift shelves went flying. Equipment came loose from brackets. I tensed up and, mostly from pure fear and natural instinct of self preservation, I curled up and covered my head. I didn’t need to be told what had happened. An artillery shell had landed on our position. Just a little insight into a 155mm artillery shell, anything within 50 meters of the initial blast is going to have its insides liquefied from the shock wave. Anything up to 150 meters is going to be peppered with a great deal of shrapnel. Realizing I was still alive, my mind went into overdrive. I sprang up from my seat at the radio bank and exited the vehicle to survey the damage. I braced for the worst but to my surprise there were the other members running around and screaming. Someone was yelling to take cover which struck me as odd. Take cover where, exactly? About 45 meters behind the remainder of the teams was a plume of thick black smoke. Below that, a gaping crater in the sand. Something clicked in my brain. There were more rounds in the air. There was more coming and I had no idea where they were going. Nearly falling off the ramp of the vehicle I grabbed the radio mic and screamed “CHECK FIRE, CHECK FIRE, we’ve got impact on the OP (observer position)”. The response from FDC was so fast it almost seemed like they were waiting for me to say that. “Rounds complete. Take cover”. Rounds complete means that the guns have completed firing. The payload was on its way. I screamed as loud as I could, “INCOMING”.

What happened next took about 5 seconds to occur but it was, to date, the longest 5 seconds of my life. I was going to die. I knew that. What made me sad was that I didn’t know what to do. Should I pray? Should I be crying? I looked at one of the other young men and he had donned his Kevlar helmet and flak jacked and was struggling frantically to dig himself under the 6 inch steel ramp. He had gotten his head under it but was making a swimming motion with his arms which was throwing sand everywhere. He was screaming. I could hear others screaming too, not sure where to go or what to do. I sat in my radio operator chair and I closed my eyes. I focused on the incredible ringing in my ears. I wrapped my arms around myself, I’m not sure why, I guess it was comforting and I prepared to be ripped apart.

At first I attributed the lack of outside noise to the horrible ringing in my ears. I felt the impacts more than heard them anyway. In steady succession, whump. whump. whump. With each impact I jumped uncontrollably. At some point tears had filled up my eyes and overflowed down my cheeks. I felt the impact but there was nothing more. Then everything stopped. I slowly opened my eyes to see several plumes of smoke out in the impact area, almost a kilometer away. I followed my training and counted the impacts. All rounds were accounted for. it was over. My voice cracked as I alerted the other team members that it was all clear. Some didn’t believe me. They stayed where they were fearing I was wrong. The radio cracked to life but this time it was not fire direction control. It was our task force commander. He was asking for a situation report. We were all accounted for and, after a quick check, no injuries to report. Within the hour our observer position was alive with investigators, officers and NCO’s alike. We were forced to be evaluated by the medics and then we were made to give statements.

After the investigation I was led over to the crater site by the lead investigator after asking him if it was okay to survey the area. As we walked the short distance to the large hole, he asked me if I was a religious man. For all intents and purposes not a single one of us should have survived the impact. The round landed just 60 meters from my vehicle. What had saved us was two factors. The ammunition being used was old they were trying to expend the surplus rounds to make room for new munitions. Upon impact the round did not fragment as it was designed to, rather it banana peeled. The other factor was that the round landed on a soft sand dune. It sunk down roughly 6 feet before detonating, which caused the force of the blast to be directed up instead of out and towards us. The investigators words, “If you’re not a religious man then you should at least think about some lottery numbers because you boys should be getting loaded into paint cans right about now”.

For the rest of the day, none of us on that OP had much to say to each other. We nodded to each other and silently went back about our task of guarding nothing from no one.

The Shortest Hotel Stay. Ever.

After our hasty retreat from Virginia Beach, we arrived in Norfolk fairly quickly. Like our first stop, we had no solid plans, just that we were going. Very much unlike our VA Beach visit, we arrived to quite an active scene. Norfolk is home to the largest Naval base in the world and being a military veteran I can tell you, the night life around a military base is abundant. We followed the road signs until we came to a tall parking structure which stood several stories high. We found a parking spot that would accommodate the 15 passenger van on the 8th floor. For the past twenty minutes all that was discussed was the courageous / foolish actions that had taken place at the local bar where three of us had almost gotten ourselves killed. This and the copious amounts of alcohol by all but the designated driver set the tone for the rest of the evening. Rayford and myself had found ourselves as the potential victims in a situation and had successfully turned it, becoming the aggressors. Carson’s mood was more somber. I think the interaction frightened him and after a short van ride and some time for introspection, his mood had soured.norfolk

We rode the elevator down the giant parking structure and were let out onto the busy street below. The difference between Norfolk and Virginia Beach was night and day. There were people everywhere. The streets were alive with neon signs and barkers attempting lure patrons into bars with temptations of cheap alcohol or a B-list DJ. Our work group was a mixed bag. Different ages and backgrounds resulting in different interests and desires. We settled on a bar / club of which I cannot remember the name. I’ve been to a few places like it. Jam packed with people, it was divided up into four or five smaller areas, each with it’s own dance floor and or bar offering different types of music to enjoy. After walking around the place a few times, Rayford and I came to rest in the 80’s bar. We found that style of music to be the most familiar and tolerable. We made our way to the bar and began making up for lost time with shots of Jagermeister. The rest of our time there was a bit of a blur mainly because of it being unremarkable. The time ticked by as we drank and drank some more. One thing that was noticeable, our behavior became rapidly more obnoxious. Before long it was closing time and the rest of the group had assembled behind Rayford and me as we sat at the bar trying to convince the bartender to allow us one last shot before shutting us down. To our surprise and the group’s dismay, she obliged us not only two more shots each but a beer with which to chase them down. Now, in hind sight, this was a terrible idea and if I had to pin point the exact moment the night went wrong (aside from the VA Beach incident) this was it. In a show of frustration, the designated driver made the call. They were leaving with or without us and they were doing it right then. Rayford very colorfully called him a liar as we stood our ground. In a show of defiance, we turned our backs to them as we clinked our shot glasses together and continued our festivities. I turned back around and the group was gone.

At our own pace, we finished whatever beverages remained and decided we had enough fun. We needed to hurry back to the van before the group actually did leave us behind. It was easy enough to make our way back to the general area of the parking garage but upon our arrival we realized a critical error. There were four parking garages, one on each corner of the block. They all looked alike, most likely due to our inebriated state of mind. We picked the structure that closest resembled the one in which we thought the van might be. It wasn’t hard to do, since they all looked exactly the same. As we entered the elevator, the copious amounts of alcohol began to take its toll on my bladder. The doors slid shut with a solid thud and I immediately had to pee. It was as if the entire collection of liquids that I had consumed, not only from that evening but from the entire week, needed to exit my body at that exact moment. I relayed my dilemma to Rayford to which he responded, “just go, man”. I didn’t have time to argue. Rayford turned his back so he now faced the elevator door, offering me some semblance of privacy. Reluctantly, I unzipped, faced the back wall of the elevator and let it rip. As I basked in the relief I also prayed that the elevator would not stop at a floor in between the ground and ours. This was not my proudest moment. I know how disgusting of an action it was. I knew it while I was doing it. Sometimes you just can’t hold it though. As my bladder emptied and Rayford chuckled, I began to smile and wave. A crowd had gathered at street level and was starting to cheer me on and wave back. Once again, due to my inebriated state of mind, it took a few seconds for the mental dots to connect. I was standing in a glass elevator and was exposing myself to a full city block.

The doors opened and the sounds of our maniacal laughter echoed through the hollow parking garage. We rounded a few corners as we tried our best to retrace our earlier steps back to the van. We were on the correct level, we were sure of it. We were where we needed to be but the van was not. They had left us. I checked my watch and it was now 2:30 in the morning. The night (and previous work day) had started to catch up with me. Confused and a little angered, we made our way back down to ground level and set about the task of finding a hotel in which to spend the night. We were nearly three hours drive from our company paid hotel and even if we could have found a cab that would take us that far, we weren’t really sure exactly where it was anyway. The problem we faced with finding a hotel at that hour was that we were both so drunk that the simple act of standing had now become nearly insurmountable. We walked as best as we could for several blocks agreeing that we needed to be low key during check in. No respectable hotel desk person was going to allow us a room in our present condition. As we approached the next intersection, a sign high above the streets became brilliantly visible. It was a beacon in the night. I can’t tell you the name of the hotel for two reasons. First, I’m not sure if there would be legal ramifications of mentioning a hotel chain in a story like this. Second, I don’t remember which one it was. We made our way to the front desk and were surprised that we were granted a room without question or incident. Due to the lack of reasonable decision making skills, we agreed to a very expensive double room suite on the 17th floor. I remember which floor we were on because it came up again later but we’ll get to that.vacancy

Surprised at the fact we had been handed a room key and not wanting to draw attention to ourselves, Rayford and I made haste for the elevator which was waiting patiently for us in the lobby. We stood in silence as the doors closed, happy that we would soon be able to get a comfortable nights sleep. The silence was broken, however, by the loud ding of the elevator as it stopped on the second floor. As the doors slid open we could see that we had stopped on the banquet hall floor of the hotel. A drunk couple asked if we were going up. Rayford looked out of the elevator and across the hall into the open double doors that stood several feet in front of us. A sign near the door announced the celebration of Mister and Missus whoever, that had been married a few hours before. Rayford informed the couple that the elevator was all theirs as we were getting out on this floor. He quickly exited and headed straight for the reception hall. The thought process was that; a. there was booze at a reception and b. at this late of an hour the party must have been going on for quite some time and anyone who might realize we weren’t part of the reception would either have gone to bed by then or was too drunk to care.  I have to admit, his logic was sound. He was also wrong. I walked up to the bar and asked for a beer and was swiftly rejected. I was also informed that if I didn’t leave and take my friend with me, the police would be called. That was when I noticed Rayford standing behind the grand piano bringing his hands down, fingers spread, violently on the keys. The way his face contorted you would have thought Mozart. The sound coming from the piano would have made you think car accident. Apparently the harder you hit the keys, the louder the sound. Who knew? Not wanting any police interaction, I apologized and held back my laughter until I was able to whisk Rayford away from his opus and back into the elevator. A few short seconds later we arrived at our floor. We exited the elevator and hung a left. Then another left at the end of the hallway. As we entered the room Rayford looked at me and through the laughter inquired as to what point I had picked up not only a ten pound fire extinguisher but also a full sized dresser drawer. I had no idea about the drawer but I thought the fire extinguisher might come in handy.

As we made our way into the main area of the room Rayford, without even looking at it, picked up a brass pot of fake flowers and side armed it across the room. Before it hit the wall and bounced around the floor with loud repeated clangs, he yelled something along the lines of, “I said NO FLOWERS”. I’m not sure why someone would put actual potting soil in a fake plant but I’m sure the hotel changed that policy shortly after we vacated the room. I surveyed the mess and was doubled over with laughter. Rayford seemed to be fueled by my reaction. For his next act, he took off his boot and threw it at the smoke detector which hung all alone on the opposite wall. The smoke detector fell about a foot and a half before the wire that supplied it with power stopped its descent. It now hung lifeless from the wall. My laughter increased as he swiftly snatched an over-sized lamp shade and placed it on his head, crowning himself the king of jackassery. Running out of ideas, he paused and looked at me. It was my turn. That was when I produced the fire extinguisher. “Wanna see something REALLY funny?”, I inquired. His eyes lit up like a child in a candy store. I pulled the pin, squeezed the handle and then, for a few seconds there was nothing. The room instantly filled with white / yellow extinguisher powder. Neither of us made a sound. I think we were both surprised by the volume of powder that was released from the solitary blast. I wondered for a split second if he had left the room. Then I heard him. I couldn’t tell if he was struggling to breath because of the powder or because of the laughter. It might have been both. I laughed so had I accidentally hit the trigger on the extinguisher a second time. The barely distinguishable shapes of furniture and Rayford now completely disappeared. My lungs burned from the powder. My nose began to run and I choked in between my lunatic cackles. Then… the door. BOOM BOOM BOOM! That was not a knock. That was a closed fist pounding on the door. Then the dreaded words. “Security, open up”.Fire-extinguisher-sign

I try to imagine the sight from the security guards perspective. The initial call was made from an angry neighbor whom we had awoken with our childish antics. Without opening the door, Rayford asked what he wanted. The reply was confirmation, it was a noise complaint. Being closer to the door, I hurried over to it and motioned for Rayford to remain silent. I cracked the door slightly, only revealing my face, hoping to pretend that we had been fast asleep and whatever the disturbance, it could not possibly had been coming from our room. I realize later that I looked like a mime. My face was completely white from the extinguisher powder. There were two lines down either side of my face where the tears of laughter had cut a line. The guard’s words upon seeing my face and the room behind me let me know that we were in trouble. “What in the HELL is going on in here”, to which I replied, “Uh… there was a fire… but its out now”. The guard asked where the fire had taken place and I blurted out, without really thinking about it, “it was in my shoe”. He pushed past me and entered the room. The poor man immediately began to cough. Surprisingly he did not radio for back up or worse, the police. Instead we were told to gather our things and be in the lobby immediately.

Not two minutes later we were standing in front of the hotel night manager who had already received the security guard’s assessment of the situation. We were told that our patronage was no longer welcome. They would not refund the room rate and that we would be charged for the damages to the room. If it was my time to shine at the locals bar in Virginia Beach, this was now Rayford’s time. As if he was my defense attorney, he moved in between myself and the manager and proclaimed that we would NOT be leaving. The guard, the manager and I all looked stunned and confused.

“There was a small fire in the trash can in our room. My friend here noticed it, ran into the hall and grabbed a fire extinguisher. He put that fire right out. Hell, if it weren’t for him, this entire hotel could have burned up. This man is a HERO”, he yelled at the manager and anyone else that was within ear shot. “Is this how your hotel treats HEROES?!”

Amazingly, we were permitted to stay the night, in the room we were initially given. We were told that if there was any more noise complaints that they would call the police. The manager also informed us that maintenance would come by the room in the morning to assess any damage and we would be charged for cleaning and repairs. I had begun to sober up at that point and the weight of the situation was starting to settle. I was grateful that we were able to stay. As we agreed to the terms and turned to leave the security guard, who was still shaking his head at the earlier spectacle, reached out and grabbed my shoulder. As I turned around to face him he said, “fifteen minutes”. I looked at him perplexed. “You checked in fifteen minutes ago. That’s got to be a record somewhere”. We had checked in, stopped by the wedding reception, made our way to the 17th floor, destroyed the room and were back in the lobby being reprimanded all in the span of 15 minutes.

The next morning came harsh. We were awoken to the all too familiar sound of banging on the door to the room. I looked at my watch and it was already 9 am. My head felt like it had tripled in size. My throat burned from the powder residue which had now settled in a thick layer on everything in the room, including me. Maintenance had arrived. As he looked over the room, Rayford put in a call for a taxi to take us back to the company paid hotel. The maintenance man finished his rounds and called us over to him so we could receive the verdict. We were free to go.

“Man, I’ve worked here a long time and I’ve seen MUCH worse than this. You guys are amateurs. All this is cosmetic, we can clean this. The fire extinguisher was a nice touch though”.

Covered in fire extinguisher powder and smelling like we had just crawled out of a sewer, we climbed into our cab and left Norfolk for good.

A Guide to Local Bar Survival.

This story takes place roughly around 2002. It was during my disaster restoration days and I found myself on this particular project in the great state of Virginia. We were there to perform some demolition work after a bad storm had done significant water damage to a facility which I am lot legally permitted to disclose. They actually made us sign legal documentation that forbade us from telling anyone about what we were doing or where we were doing it. There were a few other jobs I’ve done like that. It was the height of the “Black Mold” craze and I guess nobody wanted to let it out that it was going on. The funny thing about it was, there’s mold everywhere. It is in the air we breath. That’s not what this entry is about though. About mid way through the project we were given a day off to rest and recuperate. After the shift of the day was complete about nine of us decided it was time to cut loose. Virginia Beach was to be the destination.il_fullxfull.301074107

After an incredibly long drive we finally arrived at VA Beach to find… nothing. It was late fall and apparently VA Beach is a summer attraction. The only place we could find with any sort of activity was a local’s bar on the main drag. I don’t know if everyone is up on their local’s bar etiquette but when you are noticeably from out-of-town it is best to avoid them. If you are left with no other options and absolutely must consume alcoholic beverages in a social setting, mind your manners. If you ever find yourself as an out of town-er and in a local bar situation, I offer these simple rules to help you get out alive.

1. Leave the Women alone. Depending on where you are from and where you are visiting, chances are the locals are going to know, within a few short minutes, that you are not from around these parts. Men tend to get protective of their local Women, even if they are not directly involved with them. They develop an extremely possessive mentality. To avoid a fight, plan to go home alone.

2. Be polite. Say please and thank you to the bartender and waitresses. Tip them well and maintain eye contact. The cute bartender who has been pouring over priced shots of whiskey down your gullet all night that you finally worked up the courage to proposition just might be the younger sister of the giant redneck with the twitchy eye sitting in the corner of the bar.  He has an extremely unorthodox liking for his sister and is generally not afraid of going back to prison.

3. Assume everyone knows everyone. Even if they don’t, locals will take a great liking to the idea of beating the crap out of a visitor. Especially when you throw a sense of camaraderie with their fellow townies into the boiling testosterone soup. You may think you are safe talking shit to the little guy standing alone by the pool table… until you find out he is the younger brother of the bartender and we all know who her older brother is.

As the group made our way into the bar, we began to disperse and seek out whatever it was that each individual or smaller sub-group had come for. For myself and Rayford, it was for the spirits. Some of the others, not minding the rules for local bar survival made a bee-line for the back of the bar where a small pack of roughly four Women had congregated. Most of the others in the group were merely work associates. Rayford was an exception to that. I considered him a friend. He was a kindred spirit. Like myself, he took the greatest joy from laughter and spared no expense in the attaining of said joy. Alcohol was always a factor. Always. Rayford was almost ten years my senior but you wouldn’t know it. He had apparently succeeded in pickling himself somewhere around the age of thirty and had not aged a day beyond. The man drank (and may still, we lost touch about eight years ago) to excess and smoked like a chimney yet he was up every day at the crack of dawn and ready to work. He had a full head of jet black hair that made my thinning and receding hair look that much worse. The best part about Rayford was his voice. The more he drank, the more he would begin to talk like Roscoe P. Coltrane from the Dukes of Hazard.  After several hours I half expected him to end every sentence with a loud, “KYUK KYUK KYUK”.

The other member of the group that I considered more of a friend than merely an associate was the short and scrappy one that was spear heading the few that were now attempting very hard to win the affections of the local Ladies. Carson was not a shy person. He, like myself at the time and Rayford enjoyed the spirits as well as finding humor in every situation. At that particular time, Carson had other things on his mind. Rayford and I were exactly where we wanted to be. Following rule number two, we had already befriended the bartender who was now setting up our third round of boilermakers. I’m not sure in what order the following events took place. I can’t be sure if it was my wondering where Carson had been for so long that caused me to notice the crowd that was now gathering at the back of the bar or if it was the shouts of profanities that made me look for him. Either way, something was going on and my gut told me Carr was at the root of it. Rayford and I excused ourselves from the bar, thanking the bartender and began making our way to the center of the large semi-circle that now contained every patron and a few employees of the bar. As we made our way towards the center, the center began making its way toward us. Webster and the others let good sense prevail and started making their way to the front door. They knew, as well as we did, that they were in a no win situation. Being in the middle of a circle of twenty plus people who are drunk and want blood is never a good place to be. Not sure if we should move towards the door with the surging crowd or continue on to the center of the circle, we stood still instead and allowed Carson to come to us. Once the group had reassembled we all moved, still surrounded by shouts of threats and insults, towards the door. The mood of the crowd and the look of panic on my associates faces told me it was time to flee. Quickly. Keep in mind that while this is all going on, Rayford and I had no idea what had caused the problem to begin with.warning-angry-mob-ahead

The front door of the bar was actually two doors. It was a set of double doors that opened outward onto the street. the door on the right, heading out of the bar, was locked. I’m guessing the logic there was that it was the slow season and it was cold outside so maybe narrowing the entry would keep the heating bill down. The logic of why the door was locked didn’t matter to me until much later. What mattered to me at the time was that as we moved as a group towards the door, the others with me shoved their way to the left side which inadvertently shoved myself, Rayford and Carson to the right. I approached the door, ready to take off running as soon as my feet hit the pavement and I was stopped dead in my tracks. The door didn’t even give. Rayford ran into me and Carson into him. The angered crowd closed the gap and blocked the left door which had been our only means of escape. We were trapped. I think the mob was as shocked as we were that we could not exit and had nowhere to go. We were at their mercy and they didn’t know what to do with us. There was a few seconds of quiet as everyone looked around at each other. I saw opportunity and I capitalized on it. I asked the young man who appeared to be the ring leader and main instigator of the gang what had caused the commotion. He briefly but thoroughly filled me in on how Carson, after attempting to buy the guy’s girlfriend a drink, was confronted by the young man. Upon being informed he was the young lady’s boyfriend, Carson found it to be extremely humorous, alluding to the fact that she was dating beneath her. He questioned his ability to keep her… happy, if you will. That was when the fun began.

After the brief exchange we had established some sort of hierarchy. The young man with the blond hair and Baja sweater was the ring leader for the angry mob. Similarly, the mob now looked at me as the spokesman for our even smaller than before group of fun seekers. I knew what they wanted and it was not me. The subtle nod from a few of the front line thugs was to let me know that, if i gave up my cohort, I would be allowed safe passage. Rayford stood on my right, ready to go whatever direction we would choose. Rayford wasn’t afraid of a fight. Carson was ready as well but being as he was more the focal point, he wanted to leave as quickly as possible. I made a quick attempt at apologizing for my friend and requesting to be allowed to leave. Neither was accepted. Either Carr was going to get stomped by a group of twenty plus people or Carr, Rayford and myself were going to get stomped by a group of twenty plus people. It was a catch 22 for Carson. My mind raced looking for a way out. I looked out through the glass pane of the door we were backed up against and I saw our salvation. There was a cop car sitting with its lights off in the parking lot directly across the street. If the crowd attempted to overtake us, I could break the glass which would alert the police officer. We’d be saved. That was when I noticed the police car was empty. I don’t know where the cop was but he wasn’t anywhere close enough to help us. We were completely on our own. It was at this darkest moment that my mind clicked to a lesson my Father taught me as a young boy. He told me, “Son, there isn’t any situation in life you shouldn’t be able to talk your way out of”. Apparently that did the trick. I’ll try to relay what happened next as best I can. Most of this was told to me after it took place. I have no recollection of the events that follow.

To the great surprise of everyone that had amassed at the front door, I reached up with my right hand and threw the deadbolt to the locked position. The left door was held in place by security bars that extended out from the top and bottom of the door. When I flipped the deadbolt, the two doors now were one. I had effectively locked us all inside the bar. The looks on the faces of the crowd stared to melt from anger to curiosity. That was when I screamed to everyone and no one like a complete lunatic that if anyone touched me or my friends that I “burn this fucking place down with all of us inside it”. For the record, I am not an arsonist nor am I homicidal, suicidal or any other kind of cidal. I was scared and I was bluffing. Oh, what a bluff it became. The crowd took one step back. Their leader searched my face, looking for a tell. I stood my ground. I produced my zippo from my pocket and flicked it open, making sure to emphasize the loud zippo CLANG for effect. They took another step back. The door was now unobstructed and Carson tried to nudge me towards it. Too late, I was going for my Academy Award now. Someone noticed the police car parked across the road and suggested that I calm down, less I wished to be arrested. They did not know what I knew, that the car was unoccupied. my rant shifted to how much fun I had during my first stint in prison and that law enforcement did not intimidate me. I began banging on the glass door and screaming profanities. Rayford took this as his cue to join in. He forcefully brought his arm downward, releasing the beer bottle he still had, causing it to explode on the wooden floor. This was accompanied by a banshee like wail. The crowd took two big steps back. Their ambassador spoke, his voice shaky now. “What the fuck is wrong with you people?”. All of a sudden, no trouble was desired. We were asked to leave immediately and never to return. I hesitated for just a second or two, twitching my eye, as if I was inconvenienced by their request for a peaceful resolution. Without uttering a response I unlocked the deadbolt, pushed the door and we exited, walking backwards onto the sidewalk. The door was quickly closed and locked again as the patrons stared intently at us, waiting to see what we would do. We continued to back away, maintaining eye contact until we rounded the corner and were out of sight. Once gone, we erupted into laughter and took off running, not stopping until we reached the parking lot where the 15 passenger van that had brought us to VA Beach was parked. The other 6 co-workers were there waiting. We climbed in and our designated driver drove off, heading straight out of VA Beach and quickly for the highway. I was exhausted. I announced how I could not wait to be back at my hotel room to get some sleep, to which Rayford replied

“Hotel?! We ain’t goin to no hotel. We’re goin to NORFOLK!”

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