Authors: Doug Beason
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #war, #Contemporary Fiction
“Yes, sir!” Twenty muffled voices spoke through their masks. Even in the darkness, everyone looked like embryonic frogs.
As the canister spewed gas the room became hazy; Rod couldn’t see past his classmate sitting next to him. Pinpricks of light in the ceiling faded like headlights attenuated in a thick fog.
Someone spoke up at the end of the tent. “Sir, may I ask a question?”
“Is your hand out?”
“Yes, sir.” The cadet was barely visible through the viscous fumes.
Rod heard a shuffling as the officer moved through the haze. “What is it?”
“Sir, I can smell something through my mask. Is it leaking?”
“No. The filter isn’t perfect, but believe me, you’d know if the mask doesn’t work. And that brings us to the second part of the training. Does everyone see the tent door? Know how to get out of here?”
“You men need to experience the effects of tear gas and understand firsthand what it will do to your troops if they’re exposed to it. At the count of three, take off your masks and stay inside the tent as long as you can bear it. Any questions?”
“No, sir.” The muffled reply didn’t sound quite as enthusiastic as before.
“One … two … three. Rip off those masks, men!”
Rod drew in a deep breath and pulled back his mask—
Pain. A thousand knifes slashed into his face, his nose, eyes, and ears. Simultaneous itching and suffocating, he gasped for breath. His eyes felt as though they were on fire. All around him came the sound of hacking, choking. Someone started to heave. A mile away, through thick fog and noxious fumes, the tent flap opened.
Rod staggered for the light and stumbled over his own feet. Later he realized that two long wooden benches had been set up to funnel the basics to the exit. But now his sole focus was to get outside.
Coughing, he lurched into one of his classmates and toppled into a heap just outside the tent; fumes poured outside and diffused over the ground.
With his gas mask still on, the officer stood by the entrance and pulled basics outside. “Buddy up!” he yelled, his voice muffled by the mask. “Find your roommate and make sure he’s out of the tent!” As another basic staggered out, the officer disappeared inside the tent to insure everyone was accounted for.
Rod found Sly on the ground, well away from the tent. His arms flung over his knees, he kept his head down and wheezed.
“You okay?” Rod said.
Rod plopped down beside him. “I hope that’s the last time we’ll do that.”
Sly looked up sharply. “Don’t ever say that again. You know it’s bad luck. Someone might decide we need to experience the tear gas again.”
“You men!” The officer stood with his hands on his hips and from the tent yelled at them. “Stop taking a blow and stand up! Get over here and join your classmates.”
“You’re right,” Rod said, reaching out to steady himself on Sly’s shoulder as he shakily took his feet. “Justice might hear us and make us do it over again, just for spite.”
O O O
“At ease, gentlemen. Take seats.” Lieutenant Ranch walked to the front of the squadron assembly room and leaned back against the table that was pushed to the wall. Years ago the room had been used as a common area for an airman’s dormitory. Now barren except for chairs, a table, and a blackboard, the room had been converted into a meeting area for the basics, where they were given lectures on hygiene, military history and customs, survival, airmanship, navigation, tactics, and Air Force tradition.
The tenseness in the room dissipated. The atmosphere was noticeably more at ease when the basics realized that tonight’s lesson would be led by Ranch. Although they knew they still had their shower formation afterwards, at least Captain Justice wasn’t present.
Rod sat in the front row between Sly and Manuel Rojo, a lanky Hispanic from Albuquerque. Rod had heard that Manuel was the oldest child of nine, and the first in his immigrant family’s history to attend college. It was like sitting between two extremes of the human spectrum, both physically and intellectually: somehow still able to maintain a slight pudginess despite the grueling summer, Sly couldn’t take anything seriously; on the other hand, Manuel looked as if he weighed half of what Sly did, and at 6 inches taller, carried an erudite air about him. The basics sat next to the classmates whom they normally stood next to in formation, rather than sit with the others in the Flight. As a result, Rod knew the others by sight, but they had all been much too busy to get to know each other personally.
Ranch set a box of pencils and a sheaf of papers next to him on the table. He folded his arms and looked over the basics. “Tonight we’re going to do something a little different. Yesterday your class received a briefing on the West Point and Annapolis Honor Codes. You’ve been exposed to the differences between the two, and you’ve had lectures on the need for establishing your own code. Next week you’ll elect one of your classmates as your Honor Representative, and over the next month you’ll decide if you want a code, and if you do, what your code will be.”
Ranch paused. “The crux of the matter is that you are going to have to construct a code so that honor supersedes loyalty to the individual, and ensures the unit’s survival.”
Manuel Rojo stood. “Sir, may I make a statement?”
“I thought we were always loyal to our classmates, sir.”
Ranch nodded and looked pleased. “That’s right; you’re being taught to put the needs of others before you: Never let your classmate down. But the ultimate goal is loyalty to the unit, and not the individual. Your loyalty should not be blind, but selective.”
Sly raised his hand. “Sir, I do not understand.”
“Okay,” Ranch said. “Suppose you’re on enemy patrol and your classmate lights up a cigarette, possibly putting your Flight in danger by pinpointing your location. Which is more important: the individual’s right to smoke or the unit’s right to survive?”
One of their classmates, a beefy blonde who looked as though he might be one of the football players, snorted, “No one would do that, sir!”
Lieutenant Ranch lifted an eyebrow. He said softly, “You’d be surprised what people do in the real world, Mr. Delante.” He turned to the squadron. “So don’t take this lightly. I’m going to leave you here alone, and you’ll have the rest of the night to discuss this with your classmates. You’ll be setting up a system that will not only affect the classes that come after you, but also establish a culture that defines how the entire Academy interacts with you—the academic faculty, the athletic department, and the military training cadre. And that will permeate into the Air Force.
“You will be establishing a core value system that will define the very essence of officership for decades to come. But most important, it all comes down to this: You are entering the only profession in the United States of America that has been given the authorization by Congress and the President to kill. With that responsibility, our nation must ensure that you have the highest honor and ethics to accomplish your mission. Your honor code—not mine, nor anyone else’s—will serve as a foundation for our nation’s trust.
“Tonight it’s time to talk among yourselves, debate the issue. You’ll do this every other night and take a vote in the next few weeks.” He straightened. “I’ve left you some reference material on the table, so good luck. I’ll see you at shower formation in two hours.”
He walked to the door. Sly stood and shouted, “Room, atten’hut.” Chairs slid back as the basics stood at attention.
“Carry on,” Lieutenant Ranch said as he left the room.
The door shut. No one spoke. They looked at each other, wondering what to do next. Up to now, every second of BCT had been supervised.
Sly drawled, breaking the silence. “Well, we’ve got two uninterrupted hours. Anybody up for taking a nap?”
“It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”
… Before honor is humility.
“At ease. Take a knee.”
B Squadron rested in a clearing of scrub bush at the base of the foothills. The blue Air Force buses in which they had arrived were parked down the dirt road. From the pine and fresh smell of ozone, it was though they were a thousand miles from Lowry, but the bus ride at dusk had taken less than an hour. The lights of Denver glowed just over the ridge.
Captain Justice held up a compact, olive-colored oval box and shined a flashlight on it. “This, gentlemen, is your new best friend. Never lose it, and treat it with care.”
Sly leaned over and whispered to Rod, “It’s a pack of condoms.”
Justice glared, trying to see who spoke. Rod tried not to laugh—a fate worse than death. “Pardon me, sir; pardon me, gentlemen,” Rod coughed.
Justice unsnapped the box, revealing a compass. “You are never lost if you have a compass. Remember, it’s only as good as the person who reads it. Don’t lose it.”
He snapped the case shut and pulled out a map. “Gather round.” He spread out the map in front of them and showed them how to align the compass. When finished he passed out an envelope to every other basic. “Each team has a set of directions in the envelope. This is a timed test.
“Use the watches you were issued and return here by 0200. That is plenty of time to complete the course.” He held up a list, squinted in the dark, and said, “You should all have a whistle, canteen, poncho, matches, flashlight, folding knife, twine, compass, map, and mirror. Anyone missing anything?” He looked around.
Sly opened his mouth but Rod dug him in the ribs, silencing his classmate.
Captain Justice held up his watch. “I have a time hack for 2105. Adjust your watches on my mark—ready, ready, and set.” As the basics adjusted their watches he said, “If you hear a warbling siren, that’s the recall signal. Stop what you’re doing and get back to home base as fast as you can. Any questions?”
“Open your orders and carry on.” Captain Justice faded out of the light.
“Why’d you jab me?” Sly said. “I was only going to ask why they didn’t include any toilet paper. Or the kitchen sink.”
“Haven’t you learned anything?” Rod tore open the envelope. “Greetings.” He lifted an eyebrow at Sly. “Greetings? Uh, oh. I don’t think any AOC has ever greeted us before.”
Sly sniggered. “Watch out, here it comes!”
“Time: 0400 ZULU.”
Sly grabbed the paper. “That’s Greenwich Mean Time. They use it as a standard. They’re seven hours ahead of us here in Colorado, five hours from my home in Boston. My father used Zulu time whenever he took us sailing outside the 12 mile limit; had to do with navigation accuracy—”
“Will you shut up?” Rod snatched the paper from him and they read silently.
When finished, Rod said, “They have us going from checkpoint to checkpoint, and it looks like arriving back here is the final checkpoint.”
Sly looked around. Several of the groups had already taken off for the woods, but they all trooped off in different directions. A gleam came to his eye and he lowered his voice. “If we’re heading back here, then what’s to prevent us from just hiding in the forest and taking a nap until we hear the recall siren?”
“Are you nuts? Why do you think we have to write down the number of each checkpoint? They want to see how many we hit, and how fast we hit them!”
Sly shrugged. “What if we got lost? That’s why they gave us so much time. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t want the sleep?”
Rod blinked. He couldn’t believe he had just heard his roommate suggest that they game the system and, well, cheat. “It’s not right. I won’t do it.”
“Why not?” Sly leaned close. “There’s no law against it, and certainly no reg. And who’s going to know?” His Boston accent grated on Rod’s nerves.
“I’ll know. And besides, it’s not the right thing to do.” Rod dug out his compass and snapped it open. He waited for the compass needle to stop jiggling and lined up the arrow against the
on the circular dial. He nodded toward a big tree, away from the clearing and strode off, leaving Sly behind.
Seconds later Sly jogged up behind him. “Just joking back there, Rod.” Sly stepped up beside him and kept quiet. After a few minutes of silence he said, “These woods are really different from New England. I miss the maple trees and soft forest ground cover; this dirt and granite wears on your feet.”
“We’re in the Rockies if you haven’t noticed.”
“I have. This whole mountain range is younger, wilder than what we have back east. Our version of roughing it was dressing up for a reception at our lake resort in the Appalachians, cocktails at five and dancing all night. That’s the civilized way to rough it. In fact, if it wasn’t for Uncle Jack, I’d probably be taking ROTC and not killing myself out west.”
“Jack Kennedy. Uncle Jack said it would look better attending the new Air Academy rather than going through ROTC, so he offered me a congressional appointment.”
Rod stopped. “You mean Senator John F. Kennedy’s your uncle?”
“Not really. He and Daddy were classmates at Harvard; he’s a close family friend.”
Rod checked his compass and spotted a jutting rock in the direction they needed to be heading; he turned to Sly and furrowed his brow. “So why did you come here?”
“Part of the plan, my man. You know: military service, then law school so I can go into politics. It worked for Uncle Jack.”
Half hour later, they spotted a sign off to the right, a circular metal dish on top of a five foot high pole with the number
painted on it. Light from their flashlight glinted off the sign.
“That’s it. What are the next orders?”
Rod dug the embossed paper out of his pocket. After reading the directions, they trooped off, this time to the southeast. Sly shined the flashlight ahead of them as Rod watched the compass.
They hadn’t gone more than fifty feet when Rod spotted a glint reflecting off something. “What’s that?”
Sly flicked the light to the left. Through the pines and sticking in the ground next to a rock the size of a dump truck was another sign. The number 6 was painted prominently on the front.
Rod frowned as he consulted his map. “I wonder if this is our checkpoint?”
“Can’t be. The orders say we have half a mile to the next one.”
“No, I mean our first checkpoint.” Rod pulled out his own flashlight and shone it around the woods. “Number 8 is about fifty feet back there; this is number 6. Which is the right one?” He glanced down at the compass. “This thing isn’t very accurate.”
Sly flicked off his flashlight and said wearily, “Let’s get going. Who knows why they put the two signs so close together? Maybe they’re trying to see how much we got off the right track. Or maybe they’re just trying to confuse us.”
Rod hesitated. Sly was right. Unless they went back to the beginning, there was no way to determine which of one of these two checkpoint signposts they were supposed to hit. The best thing would just be to press on. In spite of the cool night air, Rod began to feel hot. He rolled up the sleeves on his khakis.
“Okay,” he looked down at the compass. “Let’s go.” He had a feeling it was going to be a long, long night.
O O O
Three hours later they stopped, dead tired of trudging through the thick woods. They climbed up and down hills, sometimes slipping on pine needles, and once nearly walked off a granite boulder the size of a house.
Sly reached for the map. “Any idea where we are?”
“Within a few miles,” Rod said wearily. They had only found one additional checkpoint and needed two more before recall—which they should hear sometime within the next half hour.
“What do we do?” Sly squinted at the map, trying to figure out where they were.
Sly was quiet for a moment. “Doesn’t it seem weird it’s so quiet? You think we’d run into some of our classmates, or at least hear them.”
“It’s a big forest,” Rod said, shining his flashlight around. There were only 300 of his classmates in an area bigger than the island of Manhattan, so it made sense that they wouldn’t run into anyone. In fact, they couldn’t see much of anything in the dark—nothing but shadows of trees, trees, and more trees. Just outside of the main glare of their flashlight the pines rose up, marking a hill. Every now and then they caught a glimpse of the night sky, but the trees were so thick they couldn’t get a bearing.
Suddenly, the warbling wail of a siren came from behind them. Sounding like an old air raid siren, it rose in pitch and echoed across the mountain hills.
Rod turned at the sound. “They’re calling us in early.” He started off.
“It’s not too late to write down one of those other checkpoint numbers we ran across,” Sly said; he sounded out of breath.
“They weren’t the right ones.”
“Are you ready to catch it from Captain Justice when we show up with only two?”
“Or what, lie? That’s even worse.”
Sly was silent for a few minutes as they crunched toward the sound of the siren. There was not much underbrush, since the trees were tall enough to prevent light from getting to the forest floor, so the going was fairly easy; it was the hills and boulders that presented a problem.
Rod sloshed through a creek, stepping on rocks that lay underneath the water’s surface. Sly yelped as he slipped in the water. “Hey, warn me next time, would you?”
Hearing the siren grow louder, they scrambled down a steep embankment, then climbed up a ridge and pulled themselves through a patch of scrub brush. As they looked down into a valley, Rod saw a flickering light. “They’ve got a bonfire going.”
“I don’t remember this valley.”
Rod pulled out his compass. “That’s because our first heading took us southeast, down that incline.”
Sly started down the hill and called behind him, “We must have taken the longest way possible to get back.”
Fifteen minutes later they trudged into the clearing. For the first time since BCT had started, Rod had not been around an ATO, so simply making it back made him feel as though they had accomplished something worthwhile.
Rod and Sly reported to Captain Justice. “Sir, Basic Cadets Simone and Jakes, reporting.”
Justice returned the salute. “Where are your orders?”
Rod handed him the paper with the checkpoint numbers on it.
Justice lifted an eyebrow. Light from the fire danced across his face, making his expression hard to read.
That didn’t last for long.
Justice crumpled the paper. “What the hell were you two doing out there? Taking a blow?”
“No, sir. We—”
“What’s the correct response, basic?”
Rod and Sly braced. “Sir, no excuse, sir.”
“That’s right, there’s absolutely no excuse. You men had five hours to hike somewhat more than three miles. And what do you have to show for it? Nothing. I bet you two took a blow; you went to sleep and woke up just in time to trot back into camp.”
Rod felt a surge of emotion well up inside him. “But sir, you don’t understand—”
“Knock off fifty, smacko. Just because we’re in bivouac doesn’t mean you’re out of basic training. What did you do, leave your brain back at Lowry?”
“No, sir!” They fell to the ground and started counting pushups.
“It’s time you cretins learn a valuable skill. What’s the worst thing you can ever do?”
They answered in unison. “Sir, pimp over your classmate, sir!”
“That’s right. And saving your classmate’s life is the best thing you can do. It’s about time you morons learned how to do that. When I say grenade, I want you to throw yourself on the ground and cover a grenade for your classmate. Save his life. Take the entire explosion with your body. Understand?”
“Then stand up!” After they scrambled to attention he yelled, “Grenade!”
Rod and Sly simultaneously dropped to the ground. Rod involuntarily put out his hand to break his fall and grunted when he hit the dirt. Dust swooshed up around them.
“On your feet!” Justice yelled. “What are you trying to do, Simone, kill your classmate? You fall on your hands and you’ll allow shrapnel to escape, which will take out your classmate’s eye. Will he appreciate that?”
“You’re damn right he won’t! Now when I say grenade, you hit the ground with your puny little chest and cover that mother. Grenade!”
Rod splayed on the ground with an
as the air rushed from his lungs. He gasped for breath. He blinked dirt from his eyes.
“On your feet!”
Rod struggled up.
They saved each other’s lives for five minutes.
A crowd of ATOs gathered and watched them create a dustbowl.
Captain Justice announced in a loud voice. “These gentlemen took a blow in the woods, while the rest of their classmates negotiated the terrain. Now they’re learning what it’s like to sacrifice themselves for their classmates. What flight are you men in?”
Rod braced to attention. “Flight B-2, sir!”
As if he were a judge announcing a death sentence, Justice said, “The new name of your flight is Weenie B-2. You men are all a bunch of weenies. You’ve disgraced your flight for eternity. Understand?”
“So who are you?”
“Sir, we are … we are Weenie B-2.”
Justice nodded. “Announce yourself as such wherever you go. Grenade!”
Once again, they threw themselves on the ground, covering an imaginary grenade so as to save their classmates and bring honor back to themselves … and their flight.
O O O
The next night Lieutenant Ranch left Flight B-2 alone in the squadron assembly room, but everyone was too tired to talk. They sat in a circle, facing each other and staring at the floor, relieved to have some time of their own. Without the ATOs constant pressure, it was hard to discuss something as esoteric as establishing an honor code, but Rod felt he had to say something.