You have to be crazy to write a novel…and I’ve done it twice, so I should know. So why did I decide to start a new series of mystery books after fifteen frustrating years with the first two — writing, proofing, re-writing, proofing, looking for an agent/publisher, proofing, giving up on finding an agent/publisher, and agonizing over the need for never ending promotion? (Assuming you want somebody to read what you wrote).
The flip answer might be I write because I’m lousy at tap dancing, but the real answer is I like to tell stories.
I’ve been making up scenes and characters for as long as I remember, as well as reading books since I got my first library card at eight years old. I like to make people laugh too, so no matter how serious the story, you will find a lot of humor sprinkled into the action.
Example from Identity Check: “Okay,” she said, “It’s your turn. Strip for me.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Don’t tell me you’re shy. I could put on some music and whistle loudly.”
“To be fair, I never got to see your act,” he said, throwing the clothes in his arms onto a nearby chair, “just the remnants.”
“All right, I’ll let you look, but only a peek. Normal men have been known to lose their sight at such a vision.”
“Have you been flashing down at the blind school again? That’s just mean-spirited.”
“For that cruel comment, you’ve forfeited your shot at a piece of heaven.”
“Okay, I’m taking off my clothes, but, I don’t want to hear any crude remarks from you.”
“Me? Never. Whoa–somebody let the stallion out of the barn.”
“That’s it. I’m turning off the lights.”
My new fictional YA series features a private investigator, nicknamed “Tracker,” that uses his Native American skills to solve mysteries (aided by his teenage nephew). I’m about 25,000 words into the first book about a murder that happens in Crater Lake National Park…and the suspected killer is Sasquatch!
People ask me, “How do you get your story ideas?” My first novel, “Drafted,” drew heavily on my personal experience of being drafted into the US Army during Vietnam…an adventure filled with terror and humor.
I can’t wait to see how it all gets resolved. I don’t do an outline when I write, although I have a vague idea of the direction the story is headed. My technique is to create characters, put them into a situation, and see how they handle it. I’m also big on action and stingy on description. I hate writers that spend three pages describing the wallpaper (unless it is smeared with blood).
Well, back to the computer…another 75,000 words to go…maybe I’ll write a few pages describing the wallpaper.
Our six-man squad was issued a map, compass, flashlight, and a canteen of water then dropped off in the middle of nowhere. We had to travel ten klicks, undetected, through woods, swamp, and river, all crawling with the enemy. If caught, we’d be sent to a P.O.W. camp, where we would be questioned and tortured. The torture part, I hoped, was added to scare us, but we couldn’t be too sure since our Vietnamese buddies helped construct an authentic NVA prison and would be undergoing all the questioning.
We huddled in the dark around the map, I had laid out flat on the ground. I risked turning on the flashlight so we could plot our course. The woods were too wide to go around, but we might be able to skirt the swamp. Crossing the single bridge over the river at the finish line was where we stood the greatest chance of getting nabbed–if we managed to make it that far.
I checked the compass, turned off the flashlight, folded the map, and stuffed it inside my shirt. Without the moon, we strained to see as we moved single file through the forest with Sam on point. We tried to be quiet, but a twig cracked or leaves rustled, with practically every step. The night air smelled musty and mysterious.
I whispered up the line. “Keep alert for anything that moves.”
Every shadow contained a potential ambush. We strained to hear anything that might give us a few seconds warning. Forty meters to our right, bright lights mounted in the trees came on, turning night into day. Simultaneously, lots of shouting and AK-47s being fired broke out all around us. We froze–then dropped to the ground, hoping we hadn’t been seen.
Several of the training cadre dressed as Viet Cong had their weapons pointed at two other six-man squads. They yelled, “Put your hands behind your head and drop to the ground.” When one of our guys moved too slowly, he got hit with the butt of a rifle in the middle of his back. The man cried out in pain. Shit, I thought, these guys aren’t messing around.
The trainers put a thick stick through each prisoner’s arms, tied their hands with rope and threw them in the back of a truck. Two of the armed VC jumped in as guards. As soon as the truck drove out of sight, the remaining Viet Cong cadre turned off the bright lights and once again plunged us into darkness.
We remained perfectly still until I figured it was safe, luckily missing the first capture point. I low crawled over to Sam. “Let’s go.”
Twenty minutes later, I halted the team to check the map again. “It looks like they are herding us into established ambushes that have been set up along the easiest route to safety. That’s why those guys following the road got nailed back there.”
“Yeah,” said Sam. “They hit that guy hard.”
I replied, “Exactly. So, unless we want the same treatment, we need to go where they least expect it …which means through the swamp and swimming the river.”
Sam looked at me askance. “You want to go through a swamp at night with no lights?”
“You want to be caught?” Nobody did.
I led the team away from the path that circled the swamp to the west. Just as we reached the edge of the large quagmire, more bright lights, shooting and shouting happened right where we would have been, had we not changed direction. “Good call, Eli,” said Sam.
Looking at the creepy morass ahead of us, I didn’t exactly relish going into the goop, but couldn’t think of a safe alternative. “Anybody know if there are alligators in this part of Georgia?”
One team member said, “Oh yeah, and lots of poisonous snakes too.”
I shook my head. “There has to be a better way. Spread out and find another trail.”
Sam returned in a few minutes. “Come over here. I think I found something.” He pushed aside a pile of sticks and brush covering a flat bottom skiff, complete with oars. When a teammate started to climb in, I grabbed him by the arm. “Wait. Check for booby traps.”
We found and disconnected two trip wires attached to the boat oars. One wire had been hooked to a power switch and a series of four lights mounted in a nearby cypress tree. The second wire disappeared into the dirt. We carefully dug up a buried satchel charge and took it along in case we needed it later.
The swamp, thick with vegetation, contained a myriad of twists, turns, and dead ends. Animal cries in the dark didn’t sound very friendly and the many swirls in the water next to the boat likely hid unwanted slimy creatures making their way through the water just below the plant life on the surface. We would never have made it through on foot. Finally, after a lot of rowing, and use of our faithful compass, the cypress trees started to thin. Up ahead I could make out the bridge from the several bright lights mounted on the structure. A dirt road lay between the edge of the swamp and a six-foot high levee that ran parallel to the river. Three enemy soldiers were posted on the bridge making it impossible to cross from the swamp to the river without being spotted.
We sat in the safety of the swamp shadows and pondered our fate. “What are we going to do Eli?” asked Sam. The others looked my way as well. “I don’t know. Anybody have any ideas, besides suicide or surrender? We could try a diversion, but that means one of us would have to be sacrificed.”
The image of the gun-butted officer candidate remained fresh in my mind. If capture got that rough, what would prison camp be like? Nobody spoke for several minutes. I sighed. “You talked me into it. Give me the explosives and a ten-minute head start. When you hear a big bang, pick up the boat, scale the levee, and into the river as fast as you can, then row like hell.”
“Are you sure, Eli?” asked Sam.
“No, but before I chicken out…hand me the satchel charge. Wait for my signal before you scale the levee.”
I worked my way along the dark edge of the swamp. My plan was to blow the explosive, distract the lookouts, give my team a chance to escape, and by some miracle run across the bridge to safety. It could work.
The soldiers never took their eyes off the path or the road. So, I grabbed a good-sized rock and gave it a heave into some heavy brush near the swamp path. The distraction gave me enough time to scurry unseen across the road and under the bridge. I held my breath.
No reaction, so I hooked up the satchel charge wires to a detonator, stood as far away as I could and pushed down the plunger–BOOM! A soldier yelled and there was the clatter of boots running overhead. I wondered which side the enemy would pick to come after me. When the first soldier rounded the bridge support to the west, I ran the opposite way. When I got to the top, one of the soldiers had remained. But, he was leaning over the rail, looking at the action below and didn’t hear me coming. I shoved him off the bridge, waiting until he safely splashed into the river below and then started running toward the far side at top speed. It looked like I was going to make it when three new soldiers appeared on the bridge in front of me. The trainers I had eluded previously had already recovered and were now standing behind me. I was trapped.
I braced myself for a beating, as the tallest enemy soldier walked up to me. “Are you the one who set off the explosion?” I cautiously lowered my arms protecting my head and nodded. “That was really cool, man. You scared the shit out of those guys. They must have jumped a foot. Where’s the rest of your squad?”
“Safe and sound, I hope. They were crossing the river while you were chasing me.”
“No shit! You guys found the boat and disarmed the trip wires? So, that’s where you got the explosives. You’re the first squad to ever make it this far.”
“You mean nobody wins?”
“The course is designed to catch the candidates and send them to the prison camp. And I’m afraid that’s where I have to take your squad, even if you did successfully complete the assignment. But, I’m going to make sure you receive top marks, maybe even a weekend pass.”
They escorted me to a waiting truck. I climbed in the back with the training staff. They told me the other five candidate squads had already been caught, so they were shutting things down on the course. They found my squad hiding in the bushes a hundred yards from the bridge. “Did we make it?” Sam asked hopefully.
I answered. “The good news is we made it further than any other candidate team and might earn a weekend pass.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“We are still going to be tortured.”
We rode in silence for twenty minutes over bumpy roads, until we reached the compound, a twenty-foot, wooden stockade wall with sharpened points, intertwined with barbed wire. The place was ablaze with lights with mounted guns in each corner guard tower. The tall VC soldier warned us before got out of the truck. “We all have to play our part here, so just along with it, okay?”
Our captor banged on the gate. “Open up, we’ve got more prisoners.” As soon as we were inside, more training cadre guards in VC costumes started shoving us around, while cursing, “Swine Americans,” and “dirty imperialists.”
The Vietnamese officer candidates added a certain realism to the exercise, but our buddies at the moment did not look too friendly. Le Huu Duc, a quiet, introspective candidate, now wearing an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) uniform, turned loud and mean. “Why are these prisoners not bound?” He demanded.
The capturing officer explained. “They were the last ones caught, sir, and we did not want to delay longer than necessary getting them to you for questioning.” Officer Duc, seemed to accept this answer. “Put them in the holding pen.”
We were shoved into a fenced area with several other candidates, including my buddy, Steve, who apparently had been assigned to pick blades of grass while on his hands and knees. “Steve,” I called out and promptly received a rifle butt from one of the guards. “No talking.” I restrained from taking a swing at the guy.
Facing away from the guards, I whispered, “Why in the hell are you picking grass?” Steve, without looking up, answered, “It’s part of the punishment. Whatever you do don’t tell them anything when they interrogate you.” I leaned down. “Thanks for the tip.” The same nasty VC threatened me again with his rifle butt. “Get away from the other prisoner, he is being punished.” I backed off.
Sam covered his mouth as if coughing. “Can you believe this shit?”
Before long a new guard approached. “Follow me.” As we walked, I noted the compound was divided into four main areas of activity with screams coming from everywhere except the holding pen. Armed guards roamed everywhere. Escape looked impossible.
We reached the command tent located in the center of the prison. The guard shoved me inside. With only a small lamp as a light source, it took a second for my eyes to adjust. Commander Le Huu Duc sat behind a table appearing very authentic dressed in an NVA cream-colored officer’s uniform, complete with medals pinned over the right breast pocket and gold braids on both shoulders. Guard on both sides, each held a rifle and stared straight ahead.
My cadre companion pushed down on my shoulder and told me to kneel in front of the supreme commander. When I resisted, he hit me with his rifle behind the knees, catching me off guard, and down I went. “Watch it, asshole.” For my remark, he slapped the back of my head hard enough to knock me on my face.
Duc said, “Enough! We’re not barbarians. Answer questions, then we give you a hot meal and sleep.” I realized how late it had become and how tired I felt, so what Le Huu proposed sounded tempting. “We know you are a spy and we can shoot you anytime. Understood?”
I was in no mood to dick around. “Whatever, pal.”
“What is your unit and where are you based?”
“Mickey Mouse and Disneyland…in that order.”
“How many men are in your company and types of weapons?”
“Well, me, Goofy, Donald, and Minnie, oh wait, she’s a girl…you only wanted men. Weapons-wise, I think Goofy has a slingshot, but I’m not sure.”
“Think you funny, spy? Maybe need convincing?”
“Hit me with your best shot, doorman, and then call me a cab, so I can get the hell out of this place.” I got rewarded with another smack to the back of the head.
Commander Duc, red in the face, leaped to his feet and shouted. “Take this filthy pig to the triangle!” The “triangle” didn’t sound too bad; maybe they wanted me in their orchestra?
The cadre guard grabbed my collar and dragged me backward to an odd device consisting of two poles, a rope between them, as well as a triangular metal bar connected to a handle, so it could be rotated. I was ordered to roll up my pant legs and kneel on the bar while holding onto the overhead rope. But the rope had been mounted so high that you had to practically do a chin-up if you didn’t want your body weight resting on the bar. Starting on the flat side, the guard rotated the instrument to a point right against my shins where the bone is closest to the skin’s surface. I held my weight as long as I could, while the guard spit on me, threw dirt in my face and said nasty things about my mother.
Finally, with my arms aching, I had to relax. Most of my weight now rested on the point of the triangle. What started out as extremely painful got worse when they rotated the handle. The triangular bar alternated between point and flat working its way down my shin from the knee to the ankle. My eyes were tearing, but I refused to cry out. When he reached the ankle, the guard began rolling the triangle back toward the knee. I tried to pull myself up again, but no strength remained in my arms. After the guard reversed his direction for the third time, I’d had it and told him so. He helped me down. Both my legs were bleeding. I hobbled into the command tent and faced Commander Duc. He gave me a creepy smile. “You ready to cooperate?”
“I’ve always thought of myself as cooperative.” I wanted to keep him talking to allow the pain in my shins to subside.
“Good. Now, name of unit, how many men and where is located? No one will think less of you for giving me such unimportant information.”
“No problem, doc. My unit is Loony Toons, with Elmer Fudd, Tasmanian Devil, Roadrunner, Wiley E. Coyote, and a few others. We all hang out at Warner Brothers in L.A.”
“What is this nonsense? Think you can mess with me? Guards, take him to apache pole and then the pit.”
“Couldn’t I just go pick grass? I’ll make you a nice green salad. Remember pal, this is just training.”
Once again they dragged me out after another smack in the head. The guard took a second swing at me, but I ducked and laughed, and then paid for my insolence with a rifle butt to the ribs. I was becoming really pissed off.
He ordered me to hug the Apache pole “backward,” while lashing my wrists and ankles with braided ropes until I resembled a human sail. I don’t normally bend that way, which strained my sore muscles even further. The guard smiled as he walked behind me and suddenly shoved down on my shoulders. I let out an involuntary cry and swore my back crack.
“Now do you have something to say?”
I bit down on my lip. “Yeah, check if my cab is here yet. I’m ready to leave.” He punched me in the gut. “You wouldn’t try that if my hands were untied.”
“Oh yeah,” said the big guy, freeing me. I struggled to my feet. He got right in my face, “So, what are you going to do about it, punk?”
This “training” exercise had gone too far and I didn’t want to play anymore. I brought my knee up into the man’s groin. When he doubled over in pain, I grabbed his hair and slammed his head into my other upcoming knee, hearing the satisfying crunch of his nose breaking. As he bounced off my knee, I doubled both fists and with all my remaining strength hit him with a huge uppercut. He landed with a thud on his back in the dirt–out cold. I ran toward the gate and had it half opened when four more guards grabbed me and dragged back inside.
They carried me kicking and cursing to the pit, which turned out to be full-length wall locker buried three feet in the ground. They threw me in unceremoniously on my back, which still smarted from the apache pole. I cried out in pain, but they slammed the metal door shut and locked it with a loud click.
My narrow container didn’t allow me to turn over, even if I wanted to. The only light came from three slits in the door near my face. Squinting through the opening, I could just make out the angry guards standing around the hole, staring down at me. Commander Duc gave an order in Vietnamese. Had I done something to offend him back at 62nd Company?
Next I heard a scraping sound, and then a soft thud on the locker door. The sound repeated itself, followed by another. Dirt trickled through the slits and landed on my face. I’m not normally claustrophobic but started to sweat. I yelled. “Hey guys, we’re on the same team here.”
Before long total darkness enveloped me and I found it difficult to breathe. Pressed up against the cold, hard metal, my back started to throb. My last conscious thought before passing out, “I’ve been buried alive.”
Want to read more? #amazon reviews welcome
The platoon gathered outside a ten-by-twelve wooden shack, far removed from any inhabited part of the base. The drill instructor held up a rubber gas mask with bug-eyed goggles, a pig’s snout containing two dense filters, and double straps that fit over your head. He explained how the mask protected us from enemy chemical warfare and that it did the Army no favors if we died or passed out and couldn’t fire at the bad guys. It made sense to me.
The training officer told us to put on our masks, and so adorned, we turned an alien army of insect men, waiting uneasily for our turn to test out the weird-looking apparatus. There was one rubber-sealed door to enter the windowless building, and another to exit. The first group of five soldiers entered, and about thirty seconds later came running out, one after the other, mask in hand, with crocodile tears streaming down their faces.
I swallowed hard after they called out Sam, Tex, Steve, Harry and I to go next. We pulled our mask straps tight to assure a firm seal, and then cautiously opened the door.
A single bare bulb in the ceiling and an illuminated exit sign hanging over the back door provided most of the light. The dirt floor hut stood empty except for a small wooden table in the corner that held a raised metal canister full of gas pellets with a burning six-inch candle underneath. Some smoke rose from the candle, but, for the most part, the air looked clear.
Sarge stood in the middle of the room, also wearing a mask. “I want each of you to take a deep breath.” We reluctantly did… and nothing happened. The darn things still worked, even though they were WW II surplus.
Sarge ordered Sam. “Take off your mask.” Sam glanced at us for support, closed his eyes, held his breath, and then removed his mask with his right hand. Sarge said, “Open your eyes and look at me.” Sam squinted, but his eyes still swelled up and the tears began to flow. “What’s your full name, Private?”
“Samuel L. Johnston, drill sergeant”
“Now say your serial number, slowly, so I can understand it.”
“267-00-9999, drill sergeant.” The tears ran like a river now.
Sarge waited another few seconds. “Okay, private, you’re dismissed.”
Sam ran like hell for the back door, bawling like a baby. Sarge followed the same process for Steve and Tex but held Harry and me until last.
Catching us by surprise, Sarge reached out and ripped off our masks before we closed our eyes or held our breath. Harry cried out, a huge mistake because he got a giant gulp of the gas when he inhaled. He started running around like a headless chicken, first bumping into the table, knocking over the candle and tear gas canister, and then ran full speed into Sarge, almost knocking him down.
Sarge grabbed Horowitz by the shoulders. “Stand still, you little shit. What’s your name?”
“You know my name,” bawled Harry.
“Say it, along with your serial number.”
“Harry Oliver Horowitz, 222-47-0000.”
“Next time you have a grenade in your hand, what are you going to do with it?”
“Stuff it down your shorts.”
“Get the hell out my sight, wimpy boy.” He pushed Horowitz out the exit door.
Exposed to the gas for too long, my eyes had almost swelled shut. A burning pain extended from the front of my eyes to the back of my brain. I couldn’t wait, so I yelled, “Eli J. Jones, 256-24-2488,” as I ran toward the door. But Sarge stepped in my way and blocked the exit.
“I’m not done with you yet. I’m sick and tired of your smart-ass remarks and your little fucking tricks. You think I don’t know who’s behind all these stunts?”
“Shoot me or move,” I said, choking.
Sarge took a swing at me. I ducked to the side and then ripped off his gas mask. When he put his hands to his face, I punched him in the stomach and threw my shoulder into his side knocking him off balance. I neatly stepped around him and out the door, not caring if he brought charges against me or not.
Sarge followed me out of the building, also coughing and crying from the gas. Before Sarge could say anything, the instructor came over, took one glance at my face and said, “You’ve been overexposed to tear gas. I’m sending you to the base hospital for treatment.” He then turned back to Wolinski. “Sergeant, I want a full report about this incident on my desk by tomorrow morning.”
“Yes sir,” said Sarge, still glaring at me hiding behind the instructor.
I smiled through the pain. Sarge had just provided me a way to see Nurse Sarah again-maybe not too well at first, but I didn’t care.
Want to read more?
Our instructor today reminded me of Don Knotts, the nervous deputy on the Andy Griffin Show. “This is a grenade,” said Sgt. Don in a shaky voice. “With an effective killing radius of five-to-ten feet. To activate, you hold this handle down against the base of the grenade with your right hand and pull the ring attached to this pin with your left hand. Once the pin is pulled, the grenade is live, but will not explode until you release the handle, which will pop off and trigger the device. There are an additional twenty seconds before the grenade explodes.”
“You will be going into the grenade pits in groups of three–two trainees and one instructor. You are to lob the grenade over the wall in front of you as far as you can–then duck and cover your head. To throw the grenade, cock your arm like this, next to your ear, and then throw as you would a football. Steel helmets are to remain on at all times. Any questions?”
Horowitz raised his hand. “What happens if you’re left handed?”
Sgt. Don said, “Good question. Hold the grenade with your normal throwing hand in the center of your chest, like this, and then with the opposite hand, reach over and pull the pin.”
Horowitz raised his hand again. “Is the grenade heavy?”
“The grenade only weighs about nine ounces. Any other questions? No? Let’s begin.”
Sgt. Don then divided us into two-man teams. Just my luck, I got partnered with Harry. We entered the first throwing pit, consisting of a timber-lined, U-shaped bunker built into a hill of dirt. Harry stood on the left, and I stood on the right, facing the target. Sarge stood behind us supervising. I gave a short prayer that the instructions had sunk into Harry’s brain.
“Jones, you’re first.” Sarge handed me a grenade. I held the weapon close to my chest, pulled the pin, looked through the small observation window at the target and with my left hand gave the grenade a heave over the five-foot wall. The three of us crouched down, covered our heads, and a few seconds later there was a loud explosion.
“Horowitz, your turn.” We watched in horror as Harry pulled the pin and threw it over the wall, leaving the grenade still in his right hand.
“Private, listen to me,” said Sarge. “Whatever you do don’t release the handle. Do you understand?”
Horowitz whined. “I knew I’d fail. I can’t throw with my right hand.”
“Transfer the grenade to your left hand, but don’t let up the pressure on the handle or the grenade will arm itself.”
Harry carefully transferred the grenade to his left hand, but his sweaty hands slipped off the handle. The three of us followed the handle as it fell in slow motion to the ground.
“THROW THE GRENADE NOW,” yelled Sarge.
Harry panicked, jerked around, and tossed the grenade toward the target. His wobbly pitch almost cleared the top of the wall, but instead bounced backward and landed smack in the middle of the training grenades box sitting at Sarge’s feet.
“RUN,” yelled Sarge, pushing Harry and me out the back of the bunker.
You didn’t need to tell me twice. Pretty sure I broke the world dash record that day while dragging Harry. Sarge kept pace step-for-step. Instructor Don ran next to Sarge, waving his hands in the air, and screaming like a girl, “I don’t want to die.”
Sarge yelled to the men in the other grenade pits to lie on the ground against the wooden walls for protection. The rest of the platoon scattered, trying to run as far away as possible before Harry’s grenade exploded.
We flung ourselves to the ground and covered our heads when we heard the first blast. Immediately after, a second, louder detonation turned pit number one, where we had stood moments before, into a mini-mushroom cloud of dirt, which rained down on us for several seconds. Thank God these practice grenades didn’t contain shrapnel like the real ones, just small explosive charges.
“Jesus Christ, Horowitz,” Sarge erupted. “I’ve been through two wars and never met a soldier as incompetent as you. For the safety of the platoon, you should be shot.” I felt sorry for Harry, but silently agreed, and began checking to see if any vital body parts were missing while trying to make my ears to stop ringing.
Horowitz sat up, his glasses dangling from one ear, wearing the dazed look of a deer caught in the headlights. “What happened?”
“I’ll tell you what happen numb nuts,” said Sarge, in his charming style. “You almost maimed more people in twenty seconds than the Viet Cong does in a week.”
“Sorry, Sarge. I threw the grenade as hard as I could. I told you I’m left handed.”
Wolinski growled, “Get the hell out of my sight before I shoot you.”
Harry walked away with his head hung down to his chest.
Thank God, no one got hurt; even the guys in pit two had their hearing return after an hour. We never did see Instructor Don again. For all I know, he is still running with his hands over his ears. Thus ended the lesson.
Want to read more?
Today was our first visit to Proficiency Park to test our level of physical fitness by attempting a series of timed tests with a required minimum score necessary to pass and graduate.
The sun was out, raising the temperature a bit, so we left our heavy winter coats behind, wearing only our fatigue shirt, pants, and boots with our long-sleeved one-piece woolen underwear underneath.
According to the entrance sign, Proficiency Park is where the true test is written in steel and blood. How odd…at Ohio State, we used pen and paper.
We unloaded from the transport trucks and gathered in an open meadow next to the park. Sam took his turn to lead us in our daily exercises. He stood on a small, four-by-four, raised platform in front of the platoon shouting instructions and demonstrating proper technique.
I’m not sure what Horowitz thought he was doing, but it didn’t look anything like jumping jacks. He couldn’t get his hands and legs together in the right place at the right time. When God passed out coordination, Harry must have been in some other line. It didn’t help that Sarge kept riding his ass, standing so close that on one of the up cycles, Horowitz accidentally slapped him. At first, I thought Wolinski would kill the little guy, but Sarge backed off and continued yelling at any other trainee who wasn’t doing it right.
After we finished warming up with our stretches, push-ups, and sit-ups, Sarge took us first to the run, dodge, and jump. The course consisted of two hurdles buried in the ground, followed by a four-foot wide ditch, then two more hurdles. The test allowed 21 seconds to run in and out of the first two hurdles, leap the ditch, run in and out of the next two hurdles, turn around and come back in the same manner. Not easy, especially if you happened to be short-legged or heavy-set, like Harry.
Harry tried but never could quite clear that ditch. Even with Sarge shouting at him every step of the way, Horowitz would launch off the edge and come down somewhere in the middle. Most of the time, he would stumble and fall flat on his face.
Next came the monkey bars, like the ones on the playground, except mounted more than seven feet in the air so even the tallest man could hang without his feet touching the ground. Each soldier had thirty seconds to complete as many bars as possible, easy enough to achieve the top score–if you managed to hang onto the cold bars, and if you possessed enough wing span to skip every other rung.
“Climb up the steps and put your right hand on the first bar,” ordered Sarge.
Steve, Harry, Sam and I climbed up into position, side-by-side, and waited for the signal to start.
“Sergeant Wolinski,” whined Horowitz.
“What is it now?”
“I can’t reach the bar.”
“Tex, give Horowitz a boost.” Tex with the help of another soldier lifted Harry up until he got a good grip on the bar.
Sarge yelled, “Ready, set, go,” and we took off swinging ape-style from bar to bar. The three of us reached the end simultaneously, but nearly lost it, when we flipped around and saw Horowitz hanging like a ripe apple still on the first bar, feet dangling and wailing, “Help!”
Next came the low crawl event held in a parallel series of four twenty-yard sandboxes. “First row down on your bellies,” instructed Sarge. “Stay close to the ground, and crawl, alligator-style, to the far end as fast as you can. Do not rise to your knees.” Not too hard to score well, but we dug sand out of our shorts for the next three days.
My favorite was the beast-of-burden test, racing 25 yards, carrying another man piggyback. Of course, Sarge assigned me the biggest, heaviest person in our platoon, but I still scored a time better than the minimum.
The final event in Proficiency Park was the mile run. To get a perfect score on this test required running four laps under six minutes on a quarter-mile track, in clunky army boots. The majority of the guys could run the mile in seven to nine minutes, while some took twelve minutes or more, and then afterward puked their guts out. Horowitz took so long his first try; Sarge gave up on him, loaded us back on the trucks, and we all went to lunch.
We had survived our first visit to Proficiency Park…and if you believed the entrance sign, in six more weeks, because of this wonderful training; there would be turned loose on the world another sixty ultimate fighting machines, ready to defend the constitution and the Playboy Playmate of the Month.
Want to read more?
Sergeant Wolinski says the Army places significant importance on protecting its bases, which must be why he keeps assigning me to guard duty. After all, who other than me has the skills necessary to thwart an Albanian sneak attack on Fort Dix, New Jersey?
I knew wearing a heavy green winter coat, gloves and a flaps-down wool Army hat made me look like a geek, but I planned to stay warm on guard duty tonight, no matter what the fashion cost. We were issued our M-1s with a five-shell clip, loaded into a truck, and after a ten-minute ride came to a halt near the ammo dump. “Your post, Eli,” called out the driver.
The duty officer walked to the back of the truck. “All right Eli, do you remember your standing orders?”
“I had the cheeseburger, side of fries, and a cherry coke.”
“I’m not crazy about being here either, but there is the right way, the wrong way and the…”
“Yeah, yeah, the Army way. I must stand my post until relieved, or blown up, or a hangnail causes me extreme pain.”
“You’d better not screw this up.”
“What are they going to do, draft me? Whoops, too late. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Everybody on the base has heard your hard luck story.”
“I’m going to keep on bitching until they let me out. I’m not going to die in Vietnam.”
“Nobody wants to die in Vietnam. But you’ve got your duty to God and country.”
“I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but what does Vietnam have to do with God or the United States. I hear they’re all Buddhist over there. That lying draft board cheated me out of two years of my life and I want ’em back.”
“Tell it to the chaplain. Now stand your post. I’ll be back at zero three hundred with your relief.”
“Thanks for the sympathy.”
“You’re welcome. Remember the password?”
I reluctantly took my place inside the compound. The duty officer gave me a farewell salute, locked the gate behind me, and then headed off to post the rest of the guards.
Looking around the ammo dump, I was surrounded by a ten-foot high barbwire fence strung between thick wooden posts and topped off with concertina wire coiled like a Slinky along the top. Concertina wire is a nasty barrier with thin razor blade edges that will slice you into little pieces if you try to cross it.
I loaded my weapon and assumed my post next to a solid twenty by thirty metal bunker buried under several feet of dirt. A path surrounded the mound, worn bare over the years by the guard walking his post. A pipe sticking out of the dirt served as a ventilation shaft for a free-standing stove inside the bunker. I had an involuntary shiver and thought about how nice it would be to be inside and start a fire.
I had no idea why the compound needed guarding in the first place because the bunker appeared impossible to breach. The hundreds of ammo boxes stacked inside were secured behind a heavy metal door welded to four-inch thick metal bars and fastened with genuine Yale locks to deeply buried cement posts.
No way anyone could gain entrance without a key or a tank. If somebody showed up with a key–they were authorized. If they showed up with a tank–I sure as hell wouldn’t stand in their way.
The full moon provided some natural light, augmented by two overhead lights–one in the back near the bunker door and one in the front near the compound entrance. A box mounted on the front light pole contained a ring-down phone that connected the ammo dump to the guard duty shack.
I had arrived at twenty-one hundred, so according to my watch, I had five hours left of freezing my ass off. The temperature continued to drop, and based on the number of my nearly frostbitten fingers and toes, the temperature had to be near zero. I paced back and forth, hugging myself and clapping my hands together to keep the circulation going.
Another two hours passed and I hadn’t seen a soul. The Army had built the Fort Dix ammo dump in the most desolate part of the base, so there wasn’t even the occasional passing car to break up the monotony. I could picture the duty officer coming back and finding my corpse, stiff as a board, rifle frozen to my fingers.
A little after midnight, I finally saw something move–a car’s headlights, headed my way, weaving back and forth like a drunken sailor. Suddenly the lights went out, but I could still hear the engine running. Thanks to the moonlight, I could make out the faint shape of a Jeep creeping toward my position.
I got down off the hill and crouched in the shadows between the overhead lights and the bunker. The jeep stopped about two hundred yards from the gate and two figures climbed out. One caught his foot on the jeep’s door frame and cried out, after falling hard to the ground. I thought about calling the duty officer on the phone but was afraid if I stepped out from the shadows I would lose the element of surprise.
I could see the breath of the approaching men. The shortest of the pair kept panting and tripping on the uneven ground. They reached the outer wire and instead of cutting it, the taller man looked around, and then unlocked the gate with a key. The shorter man spoke. “Carlos, what are you doing with a key to the ammo dump and where the hell is the guard?” I swore that Shorty, as I decided to call him, sounded drunk.
“Quiet, sir,” said Carlos. “The guard might be asleep and we don’t want to wake him.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Uh, sir, because the new trainees never stay awake past midnight at this remote post.”
That answer seemed to satisfy Shorty. I knew what the Army expected of me and what my standing orders required… surrender the password…or else.
The two men stepped into the front lamp post circle of light, dressed in camouflage, each carrying a .45 caliber pistol, and wearing black face. Shaking from nervousness, but mainly the cold, I saw Shorty stumble, run into an empty trash barrel and curse again. Carlos raised his finger to his lip, “Will you please try to be quiet?”
I thought, who could sleep with all that noise? I stepped out of the bunker shadows and pointed my loaded M-1 at the intruders. “Halt, who goes there?” I must have surprised them because Shorty clutched his chest like he had a sudden heart attack.
“Jesus Christ, Private, you scared the shit out of me. What do you mean sneaking up on us like that?”
“I’m not the one breaking into the ammo dump, Shorty. Here’s the drill, I say, halt who goes there, and you tell me the password.”
“Do you have any idea who I am?” Shorty asks.
“I don’t care who you are, Mr. booze-breath. If you don’t tell me the password, I’m going to shoot you.”
“Don’t be stupid. I am the training division commander, Colonel Clark…and I don’t need the password.”
“Hit the dirt or prepare to meet your maker.” I put a round in the chamber.
“Holy shit,” said Carlos, assuming the prone position at my feet. The Colonel stared at me, with hate burning in his eyes.
“I will not lay in the dirt for some stupid, lowly trainee.”
I shot the ground six inches from Clark’s right foot and then pointed it at his nose. “These are live rounds, Shorty.” Clark hit the ground pretty fast for an old guy, cursing all the way. “I will have your balls for breakfast,” snarled the Colonel.
“You have a rather exotic palate,” I said. Keeping my rifle trained on the pair, I backed up and grabbed the phone. “Wait until the duty officer hears I caught two drunks breaking into the ammo dump. They’ll make me a hero; maybe my picture and story in the New York Times.”
Carlos shook his head as if to say to Shorty, better not let that happen. Clark fumed but realized Carlos might be right, so he calmed down. “One second, son.”
“Let’s not be hasty. I realize you’re just doing your duty. I got upset because you startled us.”
“Keep talking,” I said.
“Put down the phone and allow me to show you some I.D.”
“Colonel Clark, if that’s really your name, what the hell are you doing at the ammo dump after midnight and why don’t you know the password?”
“I don’t know the goddamn password,” Clark said through clenched teeth.
The duty officer’s voice came on the phone. “Eli, what’s wrong? Why are you calling the guard shack?”
I covered the mouthpiece with my glove while cradling the phone under my chin and keeping the rifle pointed in the Colonel’s direction. “What’s in it for me? I’m not supposed to be here. Can you have me discharged out of the Army?”
Flames shot out of Clark’s eyes. “Are you crazy?” He once again regained control. This guy was an emotional roller coaster. Then he added in a calm voice, “If you’ll hang up the phone, we can certainly discuss it.”
“Eli,” said the duty officer. “Is everything all right?”
“Give me a second.”
Covering the phone again, I said to my captives, “Let’s see that I.D.” They opened their wallets. “Toss them over.” I let the phone dangle while I verified the information.
I stuck the I.D. cards into my pocket, retrieved the phone and told the duty officer, “Sorry sir, I thought I should test the line to make sure it works…in case, I spotted any trouble.” I winked at the two prone men.
“Excellent initiative, Jones,” said the duty officer. “I’ll note that in the log.”
I hung up. “You can stand up now.”
Handing them back their I.D.s, I kept my finger on the trigger. “Let’s talk.”
“You don’t really expect to be discharged out of the Army, do you?” Clark asked.
“Why not?” I explained my unique situation to the Colonel.
“I can look into it. How about a more immediate reward for your silence…like some time off from basic…maybe a little R&R?”
“Getting discharged is the most important thing, but sure, what’s wrong with having a little fun, although Sergeant Wolinski isn’t going to like it.”
“He works for me. What did you have in mind?”
“How about a weekend pass to New York City for me, Sarah, Tex, Steve, and Sam…plus a car, so we can travel in style.”
“Is Sarah your girl back home?” The Colonel asked, smiling.
“Nope, she is this very fine nurse I met here, built like a brick shithouse. I’m hoping to get lucky if you know what I mean.”
“Sarah is a nurse on this base?” For some reason, the Colonel started turning red again.
“If you think I will let you take my daughter away for the weekend, you’re crazy!”
“Sarah is your daughter, huh? I can’t believe you two are related. Is it a deal or not? I can always call the duty officer back.” I reached for the phone.
“All right,” Clark conceded sputtering. He used every ounce of willpower to avoid taking a swing at me. “What’s your name, Private?”
“Eli Jones, sir. May I call you dad?”
“No, you may not. Remember, if I ever find out that you leaked a single word about this, I will ship you out to Vietnam so fast it will make your head spin. Do you understand?”
“Got it, sir. Let’s make the pass for next weekend, so I have time to ask Sarah and you can find me a car.”
“A car! You expect me to find you a car!” Clark struggled to compose himself. “All right, fine, how about a brand new Cadillac–right, Carlos?”
“Oh no, sir, not my Cadillac,” Carlos asked, already knowing the answer.
The Colonel turned back to me. “Is that all?”
“Yep…you’re free to go now. You don’t even have to tell me why you were here. I’m sure it was for a good reason.”
“Thanks–as if I needed your approval.” The Colonel stormed toward the gate with Carlos on his heels, like a faithful puppy dog.
“Pleasure doing business with you,” I shouted at the rapidly retreating figures.
“Shut up, Jones,” the colonel’s voice floated back, but he never turned around.
Want to read more?