Against The Grain

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Chapter 14

We were dropped off in the middle of nowhere and expected to figure it out. The terrain that surrounded us appeared dry with bare white sycamore trees scattered about and tall Douglas Fir trees in the distance. Blue phase was finally here and it was the last hump on the camel’s back before graduation.

The weather seemed to have pushed pass fall and leaped into spring. Soon after the arising sunrays, the white clouds drew together and turned the sky gray by evening. The humidity, however, remained stiff in the air.

Our platoon huddled around Drill Sergeant Drake, leaving her a respectable amount of room to instruct us. She held a blank drawing paper pad as she gave us our block of instruction. I couldn’t help but notice that she’d consolidated the instruction by leaving out extra details. The drill sergeants were going to make us face the unknown and they expected our return in less than three hours.

I drank my water from my pea green canteen while we received our briefing. Drill Sergeant Drake used a marker to draw on the pad that she’d placed against her chest while she lectured us. She drew out a picture of our perimeter and linked it to our destination. We all stood quietly and watched her explain and illustrate.

The task made me cautious. I didn’t completely understand, although I might have grasped the basics. Yet and still, land navigation would begin at 1700 hours. We were to find point’s delta (D), echo (E), and foxtrot (F). We were to then head back to Alpha (A) point by 2000 hours. All the small maps that had been created for this exercise were piled into the black milk crate beside her.

At the appropriate time, I watched Private Kunert amble over and grab a map from the crate. I’d have to complete the land navigation task with her since she was my assigned battle buddy. I hated standing near her, not to mention having to work with her. Despite the fact that she had a small voice and couldn’t lift an octave, she always had something to say.

On the drill sergeant’s command, we prepared to count our paces. I didn’t understand how to count my paces, so I glimpsed around at what everyone else was doing. I began paying enough attention to mirror them. I noticed the wannabes moving apart, making space among each other within our platoon. As we spread, some of us gradually took the time to move in a straight line.

Private Kunert and I watched each other and everyone else as we drifted apart. I watched as she began to mirror the others. She began to walk a straight line and I did the same. We watched each other. She made her way over to me and she asked me if I were keeping the count. I told her I was keeping my own count and she insisted that I count her paces. She turned away from me and I stood still watching her as she began to move. I counted nearly sixty-five paces just as she’d told me to do. Then we switched tasks and Kunert counted my paces. I didn’t understand what we were doing, but I followed along anyway.

Drill Sergeant Drake commanded us to assemble into a segment across the dirt path, aligned with the alpha marker. Kunert hurried over toward me and she shared with me her pace count. I then revealed mine to her as we assembled into a straight line across the perimeter starting at alpha point with the rest of our platoon. She and I stood nearer to each other as our whole platoon spread out against the marker.

Our segment appeared as if we were all going to competitively race one another across the line, our whole platoon. The alpha marker was a post with the letter ‘A’ stenciled in black spray paint against a white painted board and nailed to a wooden stilt. Our drill sergeants provided us a command to march and we began.

We marched along following everyone ahead of us. I kept the pace quietly as I marched alongside Kunert. She remained silent as she proceeded alongside me and I remained the same. We kept our own paces and took turns shooting the azimuth. Some of the battle buddy teams moved at a hasty pace in order to be the first wannabe to complete the obstacle. My pace was sixty-five. My legs would ache if I paced any faster and there was nothing worse than experiencing body aches in the field. I would take this obstacle one step at a time—at my own pace.

“Get out the map, McCoy.” Private Kunert called to me.

I panicked immediately because I didn’t remember grabbing a map. I peered across my shoulder with an expression of oblivion.

“I don’t have the map.” I told her.

“I handed it to you! Where is my map, you idiot!” she shouted.

She slyly moved closer to me and grabbed me by my arm. I didn’t know what she was getting ready to do to me.

“I handed it to you! Where is it!” Kunert yelled in my face.

I immediately pulled myself away from her, taking a step back. Her face grew red hot.

“You had the map last, McCoy!” she barked.

I was pissed! I’d elevated from zero to a hundred in a matter of seconds. I knew the others had become nonexistent to her too, as we faced each other.

“You’re dumb! You-are-stupid! Get that through your empty skull!” she emphasized.

I patted myself down, checking all my pockets and I didn’t feel anything in them. We all had about six pockets on my BDU uniform. Kunert only stood there in front of me tapping her foot, waiting for me to find our land map. I wanted to punch her in the face. I wanted to literally ball up my fist, swing it into her head and bust it wide open. Instead, I only glared up at her. She grew even brighter red before my eyes.

“I can’t believe your dumb ass lost the map!” she snapped.

“Check your pockets!” I snapped back at her.

“No, you lost it!” she shouted.

The rest of our platoon ranged within the large perimeter. McCarthy and Davis approached us, glancing over at us then back at each other. We stopped arguing for the moment and glimpse back at them. They’d already heard us though. They both began laughing as they continued on by us. Clinton and Blackstone also passed us and they shook their heads at us.

“Great! We look like idiots,” Kunert began.

“Thanks a lot!”

“Check your damn pockets!” I finally hollered back.

She didn’t budge. Instead, she put her hands on her hips. So I pushed her as hard as I could and she flew backward. I was growing so angry. I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to fight.

I stood as close to her small frame as possible, so I could intimidate her. I then reached over and began to frisk her. I started at her legs and moved up. She slapped at my hands, but I was unmoved at that point. Her lack of upper arm body strength became revealed through her frustration. I could feel her anger like a blazing fire between us, but she had no idea how to use it. I was certain she could feel my anger as well. I didn’t care about her flaming temper. I continued to reach over and patted her down.

After patting down her arms, I realized there really was no map in her pockets. I can’t believe we forgot to get a map, s#!%! I thought. I could have sworn I saw her grab one out of the milk crate. Somewhere between the bleachers and the alpha landmark, she could’ve dropped it.

Suddenly, Kunert scurried away from me and left me standing there by myself. The minute she took off I had to follow her. I wasn’t going to allow her to leave me behind, so I trailed along behind her as she paced ahead of me. She moved nearer to Kennis and Butler and I began pacing faster in order to keep up with her.

At that moment, I hated following behind Kunert. I really didn’t have it in me to be a follower. However, I had no choice. I had to keep up with her because we were battle buddies. We weren’t supposed to complete the obstacle solo and I didn’t want to get caught without her. I knew I would get in trouble for being an individual if I were seen marching alone. They were followers and I wasn’t, but I still had to make it look like I was one of them. I shuffled behind her and watched as she attempted to approach Kennis, who was now only about fifteen feet ahead of us.

“Hey,” Kunert called out.

She rushed nearer to the two of them. I knew she could hear my feet stomping along behind her on the brushwood ground.

“Could we do this exercise with y’all?” Kunert begged, kindly.

I positioned myself right beside Kunert as she stood there facing Kennis.

“She lost the map!” she announced, slightly extending her index finger to point in my face.

“No, I didn’t.” I interrupted.

“It’s just easier to blame it on me.” I pleaded.

“I know, McCoy. I understand.” Kennis intervened.

She provided me with a sincere smile as well. She immediately caught me off guard.

I speculated her facial expression, searching for sarcasm, but I didn’t find any. I didn’t understand why she was all of a sudden treating me so nicely. Surprise took over my frustrated spirit and I began to laugh. Once I laughed then Kennis began laughing, then Butler laughed and finally, Kunert followed. It felt good to laugh with them. It was refreshing. I smiled and prepared to complete the training task with Kennis leading our way.

“Our pace count is sixty-three between Butler and me. What’s yall’s pace count?” Kennis asked.

“Both ours was sixty-five.” I told Kennis.

“Shut up, McCoy! You don’t know!” Kunert snapped.

I only rolled my eyes and let out a deep sigh.

“Kunert, we not gone have none of that!” Kennis commanded.

A smile swept across my face, instantly. I didn’t mean to smile at Kennis. It was an accident. Her responses were throwing me for a loop. I’d never heard her stick up for me since we’d been in training together.

“Follow me, the pace count will be sixty-four.” She announced.

“Yeah, follow us we’ll help you!” Butler encouraged.

I felt a sense of relief as I let out another breath.

“Starting at this tree right here,” Kennis replied.

She pointed at the tree to our left and we began wandering over to it. Kennis turned and faced us as she began to speak.

“Butler and McCoy are going to keep the pace and you’re gonna shoot the azimuth, Kunert.” Kennis replied.

“I’ll follow the map. Got it?” she asked, without expecting a reply from us.

Kunert shot the azimuth 138 degrees north and we all viewed the map while we stood near the rotten tree stump. Once Kunert positioned her body according to the proper location of delta (D) point. We rerouted the direction in which we were headed. Butler and I glimpsed at each other. With one step forward, we both began to count our paces aloud. We peered at each other and counted in unison. We watched each other’s feet and we began to spread apart as we moved through the brushwood.

We marched at a steady pace and we orbited one another as we moved. Kunert had the longest legs, so she orbited herself to the front of our quad as we marched. She kept us moving at the right angle. I watched Butler pick up a twig once she’d counted up to sixty-four steps. I’d lost my count when I glance up at Kunert, but I followed Butler’s motion and also picked up a twig.

We stopped, holding our twigs in one hand and scanning the terrain around us. Kennis informed Kunert to shoot the azimuth again. She quickly eased the compass against her reddish slender cheekbones, applying the compass-to-check method. She lifted down the thin-framed magnifying lens that targeted the center of the compass. She looked through the flimsy strip of a magnifying lens into the compass. She readjusted herself to face the direction of 138 degrees north.

We stood still waiting patiently, allowing her the time to shoot a proper azimuth. We readjusted ourselves just as we had seen her do. Kunert began to move out. Butler and I glanced at each other and then we stepped forward with our right foot. We both began our mental pace count as we proceeded forward in silence. Kennis moved along in the center alignment between us, monitoring us and making sure we were doing the exercise correctly.

. . . four, five, six . . .

Before not too long we reached our first point—delta. I felt relieved because that meant we were hustling through the exercise. I took out my pocket notepad and copied down the code written very small below the red letter ‘D’. We read the map in order to find echo (E) point. We’d have to shoot a 140-degree azimuth east in order to reach it.

Kunert shot the azimuth and repositioned herself in the direction we wanted to head. We all began to face east, just as we watched Kunert do. Both Butler and I glanced at each other and started out on our right foot with the pace count. We all began to head east at a 140-degree angle. Kennis migrated herself just ahead of me and she began to pace in front of me. Butler remained by my side and I watched her. She used her BDU sleeve to wipe her forehead from underneath her ballistic helmet.

After another sixty-four paces, I called it out and we all paused. Private Butler picked up a twig. Then Kunert shot the azimuth again. We all continued moving along the backwoods.

One, two, three, four . . .

“Can you count and talk at the same time, McCoy?” Private Kennis asked me while messing up my pace count.

“No.” I said.

I kept a straight face and looked down at my feet while she ambled beside me. I thought about the last number I remembered. I started from there and kept counting . . . seventeen, eighteen, nineteen . . . I glanced over at Butler and she only smiled at me.

“Can you, Kennis?” Private Kunert asked, after overhearing her.

“No.” Kennis replied, plainly.

I lost my mental count again while listening to them talk. Uhmm . . . twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six . . . I gazed up at the sky.

“It’s getting dark.” I replied.

I was no longer concerned about the count.

“Count out loud, Butler.” Private Kennis commanded her.

“Forty-one, forty-two . . .” Private Butler replied aloud.

I mentally picked up the count at number forty-two.

“You’re doin’ fine, McCoy.” Private Kennis chimed.

I peered over at her and I smiled at her while I continued counting in my head. A candid smile was all I could muster while I kept the count. Private Kennis quickly smiled back at me and I focused down at my boots as we moved.

My mouth remained as dry as a cotton ball. I reached for my canteen on the right side of my protector belt and took several quick sips as we stepped it out.

“Y’all okay?” Private Kennis asked openly.

“I just want to hurry and get this done.” Private Kunert replied.

“Sixty-four.” I announced.

Private Butler picked up a twig and I didn’t even bother to do the same. As soon as I announced the number sixty-four, Private Kunert began shooting the azimuth again as our routine.

After she aligned herself and we followed her readjustment, we began to progress forward at the same steady pace. We easily orbited each other and remained in unison. We seemed to be moving right on point with our directions and measured azimuths. We knew we were on point because we were right in line with many of the other wannabes who were scattered throughout the perimeter at great distances apart. I could clearly see the male wannabes who paced nearly a mile ahead of us. They were moving around the sycamore trees in the same direction toward echo (E) point. We kept moving forward while we orbited one another. After a while, Butler kept the pace ahead of us and I kept the pace from behind us.

We could hear the sound of water running in the distance and we were just waiting to see it. Sure enough, we reached a wide, flowing stream of water. I was certain that none of us realized we were stepping into a gooey marsh alongside it either. I knew that someone had already devised a plan of how to quickly get around as we stood nearly three feet away from it. The creek appeared large like a quick moving, miniature river within a muddy ditch. I noticed the tall weeds, mud puddles, and green algae mush all around us.

“We could find a log, maybe?” I suggested, standing near the mud.

I swatted a mosquito out of my face.

“And wut?” Private Kunert responded.

“Move it across? That’s not a good idea!” she replied.

The four of us stood together in the squishy mud trying to configure a plan.

“We have to go around it.” Kunert insisted.

We all gaped at her as if she were stupid.

“Where?” Butler asked, her Mexican American accent somehow standing out within the simplest of words.

A sudden expression of shock covered Kunert’s face.

“Spider!” Kunert shouted.

We all shot our focus over towards where Private Kunert was glaring.

“Where?” I gasped, startled by her alarm and searching for a big spider near me.

“On that tree right in front of you.” She answered.

I scanned the wide, brown Douglas Fir tree near me and finally spotted it. It was a huge tarantula. Although it blended nicely with the tree, my eyes were able to easily pinpoint it right away. We all spotted the arched legs and the prune shaped body of the furry spider, resting still on the brown trunk.

“That’s the biggest goddamn spider I’ve ever seen!” Kennis admitted.

I concentrated on the muddy, sunken creek while Butler took a few steps over to the left, sweeping away all the human size weeds with her hand.

Kennis sneezed.

Both Kunert and I said, “Bless you.”

“Butler, what count you on?” Private Kunert asked.

“I forgot.” She said.

“Twenty-seven.” I informed.

“’Bout time.” Private Kunert uttered.

Butler wandered away from our huddle in the mud, searching for a way around the creek. We listened to the squishy mud underneath her boots as she footed back over towards the dry brush.

“Look!” Private Butler called, excitedly.

She turned back to face us.

“Come on, there’s a way!”

Kennis quickly jumped on board, picking up her feet and maneuvering through the mud to follow behind Butler. I don’t even think she knew where Butler was heading, but we all seemed to want to move out of the mud. I followed behind Kennis as she journeyed nearer to her battle buddy while Kunert trailed along behind me.

I watched as Butler marched up to a large chopped log that lay in the distance. The log looked as if it had been previously used and it was neatly chopped on both ends. I was certain that she wanted to use it as a bridge for us to maneuver across the creek.

Butler moved over to the log and began to lift one end of it. Private Kennis rushed over to the other end of the log and grabbed it. Together they lifted the stalky chopped log up to their waist as they carried it closer to the mud. Both Private Kunert and I trailed alongside them and moving with them toward the creek.

Instead of stepping in the muddier areas, I kept my boots planted on the drier part of the soft ground. Together, we eased the log across the creek by pushing it at one end until it reached the other side.

I watched Butler test the strength of the log by giving it a nice firm kick. Then she pressed her boot on it to make sure it would stay in place.

“It’s sturdy enough to hold our weight,” she began.

Private Butler quickly hopped on top of the log and walked across the half cylinder surface over to the other side of the creek with ease. Private Kunert stepped up next as I wandered nearer to prepare to move across the log next. One by one, we all eased across the creek atop the wooden log.

Kennis directed Kunert to shoot the azimuth. Together, we all stood still for a moment while she shot it. We watched Kunert readjust herself to face in the direction of the 140-degree azimuth and then start walking off in the proper direction. After she began walking we followed behind her in a single file line.

Even larger areas of mud slowed us down once we made it across. However, we marched off at a hasty pace anyhow. I shuffled along in our single file line and Private Kennis moved along behind me. We eventually spread throughout our orbit as we proceed to find echo (E) point.

The terrain inclined, the further we marched towards the east. Tall trees hovered above us as we moved and I began to feel as if I could barely breathe. It was something in the air. It felt as if I were inhaling microscopic beads of water.

Out in the distance, we finally spotted it. Over to our far left, we all walked over toward the wooden stilt that displayed the letter E in red spray paint. We approached the echo (E) post closely and huddled around it in the sunset purple sky.

Private Kunert reached on the right side of her belt for her canteen and she immediately took a swig from it. I reached for my pocket notepad in my left BDU pant pocket and I stepped up closer to the post. I stood close and observed the code written in black marker below the red letter ‘E’ before writing it down on my notepad. Kennis raised her arm to check the time on her watch.

“Perfect!” she replied.

“Our timing is still good. Now we just gotta find foxtrot.”

“Yeah, battle we got thirty-two more minutes.” Butler emphasized.

Kennis sighed with relief. She walked up to me and shoved the land map into my hands.

“Find us, McCoy.” She demanded.

“Alright,” I said, taking the map into both my hands and opening it wide.

Kennis stood there stiffly as I began to search the map. My eyes wandered until I spotted the information I needed.

“We gotta move 270 degrees north to find foxtrot and it’s about two miles out.” I replied.

Butler moved in towards me and placed her head closer to mine so she could also read the map. Then Kennis shifted over on my other side to look at the map too.

“Good job, McCoy!” Butler replied.

Private Kunert then handed the compass over to Butler and she shot an azimuth of 270 degrees north. However, she couldn’t figure out which direction we should move. Private Kennis advised her to turn her body in the direction of where the arrow was pointing. Butler followed her battle buddies instructions and aligned her body in the direction of 270 degrees north and she began walking in that direction. We followed along behind her.

At 240 paces out we reached a two-way street. Butler decided to shoot the azimuth again and readjust our direction of travel accordingly. We traveled up further north to approach the paved road. The road appeared narrow and clustered with pebbles. The evening sky grew darker and we could barely see a mile ahead of us. Darkness had almost taken over the dreary day.

Kennis opened the left pouch of her duffle bag and pulled out a glow stick. She immediately bent the glow stick so that it would crack on the inside of the plastic and began to glow for us. Private Kennis held it up nearest her head. We all looked around, thrown off by the open road.

“Somethin’s wrong!” Kennis shouted.

She just about stomped her right foot when she shouted.

“We should have—” Kunert started.

“Battle, did you shoot the azimuth correctly?” Kennis replied.

She charged over toward Butler with a flaming hot face.

“Jesus H Christ, you f@*%in’ wetback!” Kennis shouted.

“Wut!” Butler snapped back.

They both stood toe to toe, facing off. I moved in closer to them because I didn’t want them to get into a fight. Kunert then moved in closer as well.

“Butler, shoot the azimuth once more. We can walk sixty paces and try it again.” I suggested.

“Hurry up and shoot the azimuth!” Kennis demanded while she remained in her face.

I could tell that Butler was doing her best to keep her cool. I walked over to Kennis and reached over to grab her hand. I managed to slightly grasp her palm before she immediately snatched it away. She must have known that I wanted her to back up off of Butler because she moved out of our tight quadrant. Kennis focused away as she retrieved water from her canteen. Both Kunert and I watched as she took a moment to cool down.

Butler held the compass in front of her and tried to concentrate on shooting the azimuth. Kennis turned and wandered over nearer to a large brown tree trunk. Butler shot the azimuth and repositioned her body in the direction indicated on the compass. Private Butler began to stare at something ahead.

“Guys, look!” Butler shouted.

She pointed her arm and we all peered in that direction. Nearly 300 paces ahead we spotted lights.

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