Three shooter glasses, one belonging to Private Cody Burkes, one to Private Raymond Delong, and my own hit the bar top together. We had formed our trio during basic training. Our friendship had endured a two-year jaunt into Egypt. Tonight’s festivities commemorated our first rotation home. Following additional training, we would be deployed overseas again.
The deep bass pumping out of the pub’s sound system reverberated in my heart and stimulated more drinking. Cody, christened Tex because he used TexMex seasoning like Shake n’ Bake on just about everything he cooked, and because his family owned a little cow-calf operation numbering near a thousand head of prime Alberta beef, wore a thirsty expression.
Burkes shouted above the music. “Yo, Stingray. You’re on point for another round.”
“Negatory. Ante up from your winnings and Ranger Bob and me will consider not telling the fine ladies in this establishment how far, and how often, you’ve had your arms up the back end of pregnant cows.” Turning to me, Ray continued, “Like to see him land some patch with cow patty Intel smeared over him. Ain’t that right, Ranger Bob?”
The season I spent deep in the bush at Forest Ranger School had stuck with me the minute I related my mosquito-bitten adventures in kayaking, mountain rescue and forest management.
“Affirmative. In his unique way, Private First-class Delong is referring to you cold-heartedly hustling our trusting and loyal asses last night. That was a zero-dark-thirty sting op.”
“Roger that, Ranger Bob,” chimed Delong. “Low-class Burkes could win the stink off shit and not have his hands smell bad.”
As he waved the bartender over, Burkes commented, “It’s a sorry fucking day when I gotta spend my future children’s college fund on a couple of miserly, crooked-eyed riflemen who don’t realize that drawing to a gut-shot straight has fewer odds of success than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”
My cell phone vibrated. Delong said something indecipherable as I brought the text message up on the screen. Gary, my brother-in-law, had texted me from the hospital to tell me that I had better double-time my butt over there. Valeria, my older sister, was giving birth to her first child. If given the choice between facing my big sister’s wrath and staring down a squad of Iraqis, I would happily anticipate digging sand out of every crack and crevice in my body.
“I gotta bounce and slide. Sis is ready to pop.”
“Road trip!” said Delong.
“Sorry dude. This is a solo mission. You mutts make the best argument for Planned Parenthood that I know. The maternity ward isn’t ready for more than one mudtrudger. I’ll call in a sit-rep after a little recon. Until then, make sure Burkes doesn’t blow our loot on shooters and hooters.”
“Hey, Ranger Bob, even you could get lucky on the maternity ward,” Burkes sounded off.
His words held my attention.
“Every woman on that floor is waiting to put out!”
Wearing a good-natured grin that would not quit, I carved a roundabout path toward the exit. Three boilermakers, chased by three shots of tequila, consumed in less than an hour, forced me to concentrate to not bump anyone. When I found the curb, it was empty of cabbies. Knowing that we would be in no condition to drive, we had arrived together in a cab. Seven blocks west, in the same direction as the hospital, a taxi stand served a swanky hotel. The exercise would have a sobering effect, so I trotted down an alley, cut the next street and then entered another alley. Two giant green dumpsters behind a restaurant gave off moist and funky scents. Thick and grungy deep fryer oil stained the pavement beside the closest dumpster adding another layer to the stink.
Somewhere down the alley and out of sight, harsh and quick voices fought the booze to register in my brain. Seven or eight running strides past the restaurant I sighted two men garbed in black leather coats, hoodies pulled up over their heads. Two more strides let me discern the biggest man pinned a third man wearing a sports coat, slacks, and shiny black leather shoes against the wall with a knife held under his chin while his partner pulled a fat gold wristwatch off their victim’s wrist. Sporting one black eye already, the well-dressed man offered no resistance to losing his timepiece. When he turned his head and sighted me, hopeful eyes pleaded with mine. Keep moving past the hostiles, I told myself. You are a rifleman, not a cop. Call the police. Valerie is giving birth. Do not stop soldier. When the street thugs turned their heads at the sound of my footfalls and their narrowed gazes warned me to keep running, I dropped to a walk, no wiser than a dumbass recruit looking forward to a snipe hunt.
“What’s up, guys?”
“This ain’t nonna your business,” said the tango with the knife.
His partner, a squat stumpy fellow weighing in around 200 pounds with broad shoulders and blocky fists fired a squinted glare at me. Neither one of them had turned around fully, but presented profiles only, which clumped them into a neat little bundle, like bowling pins.
“Move along. You don’ want nonna of this shit.”
“Right. Neither does my friend. Release him and we’ll be on our way.”
“They’re robbing me!”
A deep ‘Humph’ escaped the man’s lips when the thug holding the knife drove a fist into his stomach.
“Shut the fuck up, asshole!”
As I stepped forward, the squat and stumpy man shoved his right hand into his jacket pocket. Maybe reaching for a weapon. Never wait for your opponent to raise his fists was my motto. Hit first. Apologize later. I closed the distance between us and tapped him once on the nose with a straight right to fill his eyes with tears and followed with a left uppercut that punched him backward into the brick wall. While he was moving away from me, I drove a palm thrust into his solar plexus. Air evacuated his lungs. Moving backwards removed enough force from my blow to do little more than disorient him for a few seconds, which earned me the knife wielder’s full attention.
I figured it was now two against two. As soon as the tango with the blade let go of his victim, the dude hared out of the alley for all of his worth. Black dress shoes tapped a quick retreat. The jig was up. Their mark would be hailing the closest cop, I assumed, so the mugger in front of me would probably collect his injured partner and double time out of the alley.
Wrong again, which made me a perfect two for two on the wrong side of the column. My theories about human nature needed revising. Instead of leaving, the tango turned a slender six-inch length of double-edged steel in my direction. Had I possessed a clearer head I would have run in the opposite direction. Turn and run; that’s all I had to do. Instead, I turned sideways to minimize my profile and dropped into a hand-to-hand combat crouch. It was against my nature to turn my back on someone who threatened my safety. Besides, I was heading in the direction they blocked me from travelling.
“The last time I checked it was a free country. Move aside and we can still part friends,” I told my aggressor, getting angry inside, planning strikes and counters.
“Up your cash, cell phone and credit cards.” A groan came from his left. His partner wobbled on his feet shaking his head. “Tony. Collect this dumbshit’s contribution to our party fund.”
Common sense dictated caution. Caution mandated a degree of passivity. They outnumbered me. One of them wielded a knife. Since fear was what they expected, I supplied it by moving to the left seeking escape. When the knife-wielder slashed forward to prevent me from slipping around him, I pivoted to the outside, grabbed his wrist in one hand and jammed the heel of my other hand just above the elbow, but not with sufficient force to fracture the tibia. Sudden pain popped open his fist. The elbow joint had been my target, but alcohol hindered my coordination. When the blade clattered to the ground, I kicked it away. It came to a rest against the brick wall. Had I been less drunk, I would have struck a second time, and then a third if necessary to shatter his tibia bone and put him out of action. Another mistake.
Tony, the thug who had reacquired mobility, slugged my kidney. Pain shot up my side. Despite the sore elbow hugged to his side, his partner followed through with a stinging left hook that rocked my head. Tony moved in to finish his partner’s starting punch.
As soon as he committed himself, I lashed out at his kneecap with my foot and felt a crunch. Wailing painfully, he fell to one knee grasping the injured joint in both hands. Meanwhile, his partner closed in behind me. Angry as hell, I issued a spinning back fist and felt it land, not much more than luck in my condition, but it counted. I followed through with a double-tap to his ribs.
Tony was leaning against the dumpster to keep the weight off his damaged knee when he spied the discarded knife. Reaching for the knife presented me with his unguarded back. I recall thinking that I needed to stop him. One and a half steps separated us. A sidekick full of power and momentum rammed my combat boot into his spine. One vertebra snapped on contact. Another cracked like a drumstick broken backward and inside out. Loud, unintelligible and eerie screams filled the night. Tony’s partner, instead of retreating from the body shots I had delivered, was roaring toward me like a Mac truck with a four-foot-long chunk of two-by-four wood that he had plucked from the dumpster.
Baseball bats, which included pieces of two-by-four, made poor weapons when swung. Thrusting their ends produced better results and did not open the body to counterattack. Two counterattack methods worked well against a two-by-four swung like a baseball bat: one, move quickly inside the swing; or second, wait for the swing reach apogee and then rapidly move forward. The dumbshit I faced held the baseball bat as though he stood at home plate. Even so, I stumbled backward out of range as he swung at my head, nearly dumping myself on my ass to avoid the wildly swung left to right homerun attempt.
At the end of the last movement, when he had overextended himself and his shoulders stretched fully at the apex of his swing, and the back of his leg twisted sweetly into position, I transferred my weight from my rear foot to my front foot and jammed my heel into his calf, which jerked his knee to the ground. One last and more powerful blow to the back of his leg brought him down to both knees. Follow through, I heard the drill instructor say, finish your adversary or he will finish you.
So, that’s what I did when I grasped the top of his head in both hands, dug my fingers into his orbital sockets and wrenched the head backwards. Vertebrae cracked and popped. Life drained from his body. Several heartbeats more and he collapsed onto the pavement, head resting at an unnatural angle. The whole fight lasted under three minutes: one hundred and eighty seconds to destroy three lives. Twenty seconds after that I heard the first siren. I stood my ground and texted Gary an apology for my sister.
* * * * * * *
Breathing hard and shaking, I awoke covered in sweat. It felt as though I had run a mile carrying an eighty-pound kit. Ancient feelings of guilt and shame made me cringe. For the one-millionth time, I wondered why I had taken a life in that alley. Each of us has a defining moment where our life firms up and changes for better or slides downhill. Before granting my release, Parole Board Canada asked me, ‘What would I do differently if the situation again presented itself?’ Nothing I would ever do had the power to unmake that night. I said that I would leave the area and call the police. No matter how many times I relived night terrors, they never failed to remind me of how proud I had felt to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces.
Long before my high school track and field blisters softened, I enlisted. Enlistment was a tradition grandfather, Thaddeus Phillip Garland, started when he lied about his age and joined WWII. After three months of basic training and another eight weeks as a member of a howitzer gun crew, he deployed overseas. Grandfather loved firing the big gun. He owned an uncanny knack for the math required to compute trajectory, windage, inertia and distance. Sergeant Thaddeus Garland returned home from war with fifty percent hearing diminished in one ear. To fire the howitzer, the gunner pulled a ripcord. That left only one free hand with which to cover but one ear. Grandfather never regretted his hearing loss; he liked to joke his hearing deficiency was responsible for the success of his marriage, which may have been true since he and grandmother had been together over fifty years.
Stewart Alexander Garland, my father, had served six years in the infantry by the time the Korean War revved up into fifth gear. Canada did not send combatants to Korea, but a little thing like that did not stop my father from crossing into the United States and presenting himself smartly to a recruiting officer. Dad was bussed to Fort Worth, Texas, where he received jungle tactics training to augment his Canadian combat skills. They promoted him to master sergeant and placed him under a 1st Lieutenant to head a squad of twelve hard-charging, no-quitting jungle jumpers. They deployed halfway around the globe to defend against communist aggression.
Staff sergeant Stewart Albert Garland returned home forty-seven days short of completing his second tour with his right leg bandaged from calf to hip. PFC Simon Johnson had stepped on a tripwire attached to four grenades cunningly strapped to a tree, which had the doubly unfortunate outcome that instantly ended his life and filled my father and Corporal Delmar Williams’ lower body with white-hot shrapnel. Sergeant Garland and Corporal Williams were lucky. The company medic patched them up and said they might live if the squad humped them to the MASH tent before they bled out or died of disease. Koreans often covered explosive devices with excrement. If shrapnel failed to cause death, fecal infection would. The remainder of the squad hiked my father and Corporal Williams through two miles of dense jungle and into the hands of waiting surgeons who saved both of their lives.
Soldiering ran in the Garland blood. Father and grandfather owned incredibly fast hands with astonishing eye-to-hand coordination that allowed them to pull a rifle to their shoulder with the sight coming smoothly to dead center on whatever they chose to fire upon. They would start a round of skeet shooting with their shotguns resting on a table in front of them. Four clay disks would then be flung into the air, catapulted so one pair curved inside to outside on the left, the other pair to the right. Each man waited for the other to grab iron first. The idea was to be the last to shatter both disks. It was magical the way they snatched up their weapons and fired so fast it hardly seemed as though they aimed. But they were sighting just fine. Eighty percent of the time the targets were blasted to smithereens. I was no more than ten years old the first time I hoisted a 20-gauge pump shotgun and shredded two boxes of shells. My shoulder hurt for three days afterward, but I only wanted to do it again.
So, it came as no surprise when I chose the Armed Forces as the logical way to see the world and to earn a first-class education. One day after my eighteenth birthday I enlisted, the third generation of Garlands to don fatigues. More than anything else I wanted to be a rifleman, wanted to become proficient with Canada’s C6 and C7 carbines, rated the most reliable weapon in the world, to shoot bad guys who were trying to destroy what my father and grandfather shed blood to protect. I never imagined that I would dishonour my family, my country, the Armed forces and become one of the bad guys myself.