Against The Grain

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Chapter 15

It was pitch dark out, but we remained close to each other. We began to move forward toward the faint lights in the distance. The more we moved forward, the more I felt like we were heading in the right direction. I was hoping we wouldn’t be the last ones to finish this task and I could feel Private Kennis’ energy as she stressed about it.

When we approached the post we could see Clinton, Miller, and Parker leaving foxtrot (F) point just as we were approaching it. A sense of relief spread throughout our orbit. Once again, I recorded the phonetic code underneath the letter ‘F’ in my notepad.

I peered over at Butler who held a wide smile across her face. She gently threw me the compass and I caught it. I shot the azimuth back to alpha point while they waited. I felt a good amount of weight lifted off my shoulders and I knew we all felt the same now that the task had been completed. We walked closely together as we wandered back.

Kennis gazed over at me and smiled. She was glad too. I could see it in her eyes. Once we arrived back at the bleachers, a wave of energy suddenly swept over me. I’d completed another obstacle.

“We did it, battles!” Private Butler cheered to all of us.

“High five, battle!” Private Kennis replied, in the same spirit.

They slapped hands.

Once we returned to our platoon area Kennis and Butler handed in their list of codes just as well as I did for Kunert and me. Instead of tossing the map in the crate of maps like everyone else, Kunert and I sat together on the bleachers without words. Kennis and Butler sat nearer to us on the bleachers. They began talking amongst each other while I remained silent. Blackstone meandered nearer to our squad, as we sat tight on the bleachers.

“Wow, McCoy!” Private Blackstone replied.

“I can’n believe it.” She sang as she wallowed pass us.

I listened to her taunt me with her words and I only looked at her plainly. I just shook my head from left to right. The trio of wannabes beside me remained silent to her mockery. They provided Blackstone with only their eye contact. I kept my head in the opposite direction as if I were watching something else while she wallowed pass me. I wouldn’t preoccupy my mind with her nonsense. I was completing everything that was required of me.

The fluorescent overhead lights caused me to open my eyes. My body allowed me to hop out of bed at 0400 hours. Despite the fact that I’d only received an hour of sleep after I pulled my fireguard shift. I skimmed past all the other bunks and swung open the alternating door of the bathroom where the wannabes were scattered throughout the bathroom.

Luckily, I came at the perfect time. I spotted a single sink remained open and I scurried on over to it. I began to wash my face and brush my teeth at the same speed as the rest of them. After washing up at the sink, I hustled back to my wall locker to retrieve my comb and I ran it through my brittle hair. Globs of hair separated from my head and shredded into the teeth of my thin black comb. I placed my comb back inside my wall locker on the top shelf and then I felt around for my black hair tie. I whisked my hands through my frazzled hair, trying to get any knots out to put it in a hair tie. To my surprise, I grazed my fingers atop a small bald patch. I traced my fingertips back across the patch again. Then almost immediately a panic swept over me. I couldn’t freak out about it either. I didn’t want to draw attention toward me. Besides, freaking out wasn’t the way to behave just because I was losing my hair. So I took a deep breath and tied my brittle hair back up on top of my head into a small nappy ball. I slammed my wall locker shut, turned and headed downstairs to our platoon formation.

We marched out to the PT field as a company in the peek of the morning as usual. The air had become misty as the moisture set in overnight. I predicted that the morning run would be difficult for me because it was harder for me to breathe in the denser air. The males acted as if long distance running was an effortless exercise for them. However, when compared to females such as Blackstone, Butler, and Price some of the males ran like snails. Blackstone was the fastest running female in our platoon. Yet, Price was the first one to ‘max’ her last PT test. Even the drill sergeants were impressed with her performance.

Walker and Miller lingered around the orange cons in the center of the PT field for the duration of physical training. It was required that the drill sergeants set up an area for the ‘sick call slaves’ to exercise. They would have to circle the designated PT cons until the end of physical training. If our company were to leave the PT field, a drill sergeant would stay behind and monitor them. However, I wasn’t concerned with ‘sick call’ on that day. I wanted to start preparing for my PT test because I didn’t want that to be the reason I didn’t graduate.

The entire company quickly migrated out onto the open road near the field and formed into a long, segregated formation. We were separated into running groups: Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Alpha group was the fastest, then on down the phonetic alphabet to Bravo and Charlie group. Then there was the ‘everyone else’ group, which the drill sergeants stopped referring to as delta group. I was in that group, the nameless one that trailed behind as stragglers. The one we were all supposed to be motivated to rise into, the superior groups.

I placed myself at the far back of that formation within delta group. On the drill sergeant’s call, we began to hustle forward into a jog beside the PT field at a 9-minute mile pace with most of the males at the head of the formation. We gradually progressed into a 7-minute mile pace as we moved forward along the paved road. I quickly pushed into a wider stride in order to keep up with them. My legs were shorter than the average wannabe’s. Therefore, I had to pace harder. As my stride widened, the taller wannabes moved into a hasty run with a shorter stride in order to meet the 7-minute mile pace. We called cadence as loud as we possibly could. I only sang quietly in order to keep my energy level consistent.

I loved calling cadence, but after nearly fifteen minutes of running, I could barely muster a whisper let alone sing cadence. Fortunately, I was able to hold my breathing under control. We ran up and down uneven roads as well as through stretched out dirt paths. I kept my mind on thoughts that sparked my adrenaline. I began to have thoughts of tragedy, destruction, and war. These thoughts angered me enough to keep me moving at the speed of everyone else. I felt like a fight was happening inside of me. I tried to imagine pleasant thoughts, but my mind was mostly filled with devastating imagery. I could see visions of a murderous war and lost children. My thoughts streamed like a crooked river that flooded my mind. Rage surrounded my unhealthy thoughts and kept my adrenaline rafting through my veins. My legs began to ache and throb. The stress inside of me felt like tension in my muscles and heaviness in my heart. It was like the anxiety inside of me held no leash and it simulated my body as I continued to run in formation.

Somehow, something suddenly became different. On this particular morning, I felt my body provide me with strength and I became numb to the tenderness of my muscles. Keep pushing, I thought. I’d become uneasy with the wannabes directly in front of me because they were blocking me from sprinting ahead. I felt locked in the formation as if I were captured on a ship in chains. Therefore, I moved to the outskirts of the formation and dangled off to the side of everyone else.

I turned my head and noticed Drill Sergeant Drake gawking at me. I didn’t let that bother me. I took in a deeper breath and reverted back to my previous breathing pattern. My accelerated pace felt right, so I kept moving, listening to my heartbeat and calling out cadence.

“ . . . Bang-bang-whooa!

Airboo-orne, ranger, ranger

Leads the way . . . ”

In a matter of seconds, I broke away from Delta group. Two of the white female wannabes peered over at me as I passed them. They glared at me as if I was crazy, so I began to run my hardest. I began sprinting for as long and as fast as I possibly could. I smiled to myself. I was beginning to recognize running as an outlet for my inner emotions. Running provided an opportunity for me to release stress. It’s too easy for me to keep going. I spotted other people smiling at me. Nearly, six others smiled upon my progress. My adrenaline ran through me like liquid. I could hear my conscience louder than their crying cadence. So I listened to it.

You can do this McCoy! . . . Push! . . . Move up! . . . Make it! . . .

My mind drifted and painted glimpses of what seemed like reality.

I’m tired of being disrespected . . . I’m tired of being mistreated . . .

I-will-overcome! . . .

I caught up to Alpha group and I easily broke into their formation by sprinting alongside the outskirts until they made an opening for me. Nobody said a word to me about it either. I felt as though gravity wasn’t holding me down any longer and before I could push any harder, the run was called to a finish.

The moment Drill Sergeant Andrews exited the third platoon office downstairs, all sidebars ceased among our platoon.

“At ease!” we all called out.

“Get upstairs so you can draw your weapons! Fall out! ” Drill Sergeant Andrews commanded.

He maintained his sober expression as he ordered us upstairs to draw our weapons. We all hurried upstairs to our respected bay and he hurried with us. We assembled into our routine numerical order. I fell into the line in serial number formation and Drill Sergeant Andrews quickly began distributing weapons. It was like we couldn’t get up the stairs fast enough.

“365709, Drill sergeant!” Private Parker replied.

Her weapon was the first to be tossed. Walker was the next wannabe in line,

“365708, Drill sergeant!” Private Walker yelled.

And then came the next.

“365707, Drill Sergeant!”

“365706, Drill Sergeant!”

“365705, Drill Sergeant!”

“365704, Drill Sergeant!”

The sound of serial numbers being shouted across the room was all that could be heard in the female barracks. However, the females from fourth platoon had not made it up to the barracks just yet. If we were drawing weapons to conduct weapons maintenance, then I was certain that fourth platoon females would soon be on their way upstairs to draw their weapons too.

A sudden pause caused me to fix my eyes on Drill Sergeant Andrews. The room was silent for a brief moment. I watched that Drill Sergeant Andrews was standing still and staring down at an M-16 rifle, which he held stiff in his hands. It was Mendez’s rifle, the only Puerto Rican female in our platoon.

Only half of Drill Sergeant Andrew’s face was visible from where I stood. Fire engine red wouldn’t begin to describe his flush expression. He turned and took one full step toward Mendez and looked her square in the face.

“This weapon’s not on safe. Didn’t I tell you that making mistakes could cost you your buddy’s life? Or do you not care about your goddamn battle buddy!” he roared.

From my peripheral vision, I thought I’d caught her slightly roll her neck.

Instantly, Drill Sergeant Andrews flung her weapon upside down and Mendez quickly took a few steps back. Our drill sergeant beat his M-16 against the shiny bay floor. Anger ripped out of him like a hot bullet through live flesh as he whacked the M-16 against the tile floor right next to her. It only weighed seven pounds. The rest of us stood motionlessly.

“How frickin’ stupid are you!” Drill Sergeant Andrews shouted, marching toward her with her rifle in his hand.

Mendez turned and jetted off. Drill Sergeant Andrews then tossed her rifle up in the air, caught it in motion and flung it her direction as she ran across the bay.

Private Clinton quickly grabbed Mendez out the way of the flying rifle and it smashed against the wall, remaining intact. The rest of us stood in bewilderment. Instead, it bounced off the wall and crashed on the floor. I’m sure Drill Sergeant Andrews could have hit her if he’d really intended to do so. I believed he missed on purpose.

“How the f@$& long have we been doin’ this s#!%!” he yelled while looking around at everyone.

“Come on!” Drill Sergeant Andrews yelled to Private Nguyen who was the next in line.

Private Nguyen froze for a hot second. We all seemed to be trying to quickly carry on with the task like nothing just happened.

“365703, Drill sergeant!” Private Nguyen shouted.

When I managed to get a few seconds alone with Private Mendez I gave her a hug and a smile. Mendez briefly returned it and then she gazed at me as she walked toward her pack of wannabe allies. Clinton maintained her tough stance as she gaped at me once Mendez arrived at her side. Both Clinton and Blackstone proceeded on right by Mendez’s side.

Before lights out at 2200 hours, we were shining our boots. I sat there quietly, not feeling like talking to anyone. I used up all my personal time to shower and conduct personal hygiene. My fireguard shift started at 2230 hours promptly. Surprisingly, the night went smoothly and nobody sat up talking trash about each other. Most of the wannabes eased themselves into bed after we finished getting ready for it. After I pulled guard and did a few easy chores, I finally received my chance to lie my head down on my flat pillow around nearly 2330 hours, promptly. I was tired. Just like any other night after a long army day, I dozed off immediately . . .

“Americans! Flee!” the boy shouted to the wanderers.

He wore a black kaffiyeh tied on his small head and his body appeared draped in a greyish thawb. Cracks remained spread throughout the dry dirt ground and dust whirled around in the wind. The boy ran around in his worn brown sandals that kicked up dust in the air. He raced toward the village with the speed of his heartbeat, taking in great whiffs of the dusty breeze.

“The Americans are coming!” he shouted, in his native tongue.

He moved fast and yelled, but somehow it seemed that the people were only moving in slow motion. He knew they were starving and didn’t have the strength nor did they have the energy. He turned his head as he ran, glimpsing over into the cold face of an elderly woman. She continued to move at a slow pace and he noticed a sense of hopelessness in her eyes.

He raced past a crying baby as it sat outside on the dirt ground. He continued to press forward until he came across another woman who only wandered by him without making eye contact. She appeared tired and helpless as she wandered on to where ever she intended. He proceeded into the rural village and headed toward home, where his mother and sisters prayed for his safe return to them. . .

I felt a sense of heaviness in my heart and I inhaled a long deep breath as I rested.

The golden sun melted down the horizon like yoke dripping down a pan. It moved so fast, in one split second the entire world went pitch-black like midnight. The sky appeared to be the only light and the stars didn’t seem bright at all. The boy pushed along through the village like the desert dust through the dark atmosphere. It was as if night happened too soon . . .

All of a sudden, I could hear my pulse thumping inside my head as my mind proceeded to run.

He tiptoed into the small clay hut that contained only a few large blankets scattered around and a single bowl of water for drinking. He stood there just ahead of the doorway and watched his family kneeling to the ground in prayer. His mother wore a purple hijab on her head and a dusty jilbab upon her body the same as her daughters.

The boy patted his dusty feet along the dirt floor over toward his mother. He then reached down and gently brushed his fingers upon her soft cheekbone. His mother opened her eyes and reached out to her son. He eased down on his knees and leaned into her arms. They all reached out to him and drew him into the center of their huddle. His sisters embraced him as they all began to cry together. They all intertwine arms and he can feel their pulse as he and his sisters lay their heads on their mother’s bosom.

Shhhhuewww! Booohoom!. . .

My pulse accelerated as I lie in my bunk. Tears brewed in my eyelids, but I couldn’t feel it.

The little brown boy’s head rose at the sound and he began shaking with fear. It was the first one they’d heard tonight. They all squished in closer together, kneeling on their knees. They leaned forward into their warm space and their heads lightly touched the dry dirt as they bowed them in a circle.

The boy could hear their hearts pounding in unison with his. They refocused their attention to Allah and they could hear each other’s whispers and praise. They began to lie on the ground, curled up together in prayer and in tears.

Shhhhuewww! Booohoom!. . .

My muscles grew tighter as I waited with them in my mind.

They listened to the sound of death creeping nearer. After the bomb dropped they heard several hot bullets zipping through the air. The boy lay closest to his youngest sisters and he suddenly felt the wetness of her jilbab. His youngest sister began to cry out the loudest and their mother picked her up and moved her between them. He kissed his sister’s face many times as they all held each other and let the countless dark hours drifted away.

Shhhuewww! Boohoom!

“Allah!” he began crying out.

Most high and divine! Please hear my cry, Allah! I’m only a boy. How can I protect my family? They’ll slaughter us and kill us all. Please help us, o’ Allah. I lay here with my loved ones in the darkest hour. I hear my mother’s heart cry out to you, although she is trying not to make a sound. We’re lying here waiting to die, as we knew this day would one day come.

Shhhhuewww! Booohoom!

Allah, I can hear them! They’re moving closer. We have no place else to run, for this land is our home. They are killing my people. I can feel our hearts beat together as one. I feel us connected like vines, our blood rushing through a single line. O’ Allah watch over us as we hold each other and cry for we are one. We wait here to die in the place where we live. I lay here with my mama and all my sisters. I am scared, but I’m left to be the man. How do I protect the family I have left, o’ Allah? Now I lay here and wait. Allah, I have no faith in this life here on earth, but I have faith in a life after here. I don’t want to be a man. I don’t want to have to fight. I don’t want to take a life. Allah, if I die tonight, please let me live again with my family.

I felt my muscles cramp in my stomach as I lie there, awakening.

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