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.
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