Wednesday, February 24, 2010
“Uniform suits you. Not,” Mike Amberson said from the doorway, pulling me out of the mental exercise of all the things that could go wrong on our mission.
“What are you doing here? And out of uniform at that?”
“Out of Sheriff’s livery, for sure. Active duty, effective eighteen-hundred. Sam Waybright’s the new head badge.” Sam was a couple of layers junior to some of Mike’s staff, but knew how to command, from what I knew of him. I’d only met him twice.
“Snagged your sorry butt and pulled you back in,” I said as I shook his hand. “Working for me again?”
“Not hardly. Real working unit, unlike your soft rear-echelon pukes.”
“Don’t look now, but three quarters of my brigade served in line units in Mexico, Iraq, and Afghanistan.”
“Good. You called it ‘my brigade.’ You passed your first test. Not bad for your first day.”
“Thanks. But seriously, where are you headed?”
“Like I said. Fighting unit. Rangers again. Second of the Seventy-Fifth,” he said, referring to Second Battalion, Seventy-Fifth Regiment, formerly of Fort Lewis.
“How’s Ashley taking this?” I asked. I could imagine the answer. New mom of twins, too many family lost over the past year, husband back in harm’s way.
“About like your Karen, I suspect.”
“Not that well, I think. You in some cushy staff job? Intel? Personnel?” I said, kidding. I knew perfectly well where he was likely to be.
“Hell, no. Operations.”
“Good. I still outrank you.”
“That’s fine. I don’t mind doing your heavy lifting,” he said with a smile.
“I’m heading into a staff meeting. You free in an hour or so?”
“Should be. Got a call in a few minutes with Regiment in Walla Walla.”
“Had one of those earlier. You hear about Sixth Army?”
“Yeah. Right after Major Cross shanghaied me during a little dust-up in East Central. I stopped in at the house, grabbed my gear, gave Ash the news, and here I am.”
“A little harsh way for her to find out, don’t you think?” I said, surprised.
“She knew before I did. The Major took care of that,” Mike said.
“Funny how she operates,” I said as Lisa, last name escaping me, beckoned me back into the conference room. Keeping me on time, I noted.
“I better run. Meet me in the Commons when you’re wrapped up,” I said, referring to the ‘official’ name of the cafeteria and lounge area. It must have been a machine shop of some kind, pre-War. It had a twenty-ton bridge crane, just over the buffet line.
At seventeen-fifteen, we wrapped up the briefing. I thought that now that everyone understood everyone else’s needs to meet our departure schedule, now less than two days out, the deadline was real, the provisions needed to be aboard NOW, the time for training was OVER and only the last minute stuff—which is usually equipment or stuff we’d miss most if we forgot it—was about all we had time for.
My Tuesday would start in Yardley, where our trains were being assembled component by component, in guarded train yard. Once loaded, the trains would have more firepower on them than any other moving thing in the state, aside from the dozen B-52’s we had in residence at Fairchild.
And here I was, less than twelve hours in the Army, in command, with a staff who had every right to be completely skeptical about my abilities. I was certainly skeptical myself. Sitting in the commons, reviewing everyone’s personnel summary documents, I waited for Lt. Col. Amberson to show up. ‘Lieutenant Colonel Amberson’ would get some getting used to, I thought.
In the Commons I was out of my staff’s way, reading yet another stack of paperwork—this one, the personnel manifest for the entire brigade. I’d have hours going through most of this.
“Mr. Drummond? What are you doing here? And in uniform?” Sarah Woodbridge asked, quite surprised. She was dressed in scrubs, carrying insulated coveralls and her parka and her backpack, I assumed for the trip ‘home.’
“Likewise, kiddo. What are you doing here?”
“Training in the infirmary. Two days a week here, one at Valley General, the rest at the community center.”
“Well, I pretty much got drafted. You heading home?”
“Waiting for the shuttle.”
“Don’t bother. I’ve got wheels, well, Mike Amberson does. You come home with Mike and me.”
“Cool! Now, I have to ask. Are you going to seen John? Are you going to California?” John Martin was just a few days ahead of me, heading off for what passed for ‘basic’ these days.
“Afraid not. Heading someplace colder,” I said, being deliberately vague.
“Can’t say, and you shouldn’t ask.”
“OK,” she said, before noticing my insignia with some astonishment. “You’re a Colonel?”
“Brigade commanders are apparently Colonels. Therefore, when in Rome….”
“You’re the new commander for Third Brigade then. You’re the talk of the post.”
“And plenty of snickers, I’m sure.”
“Well, some griping, but that’s probably normal from what my Captain says. Mostly, that you’re shipping out like, Wednesday. And, that Third Brigade’s former commander is now a two-star.”
“That’s not quite right. He’s just a brigadier. That’s one star.”
“Fast track, either way. The career people are, ‘miffed’ I guess is a good word.”
“I’m sure. They may well have a right to be.”
“Word’s out that you were some kind of spy in your younger days.”
“Oh, not that crap again,” I said, suddenly angry that my ancient history, MY history, and a handful of other people who might still survive, was now being dredged up, embellished, discounted, distorted.
“So there is something there,” Sarah said with a furrowed brow. “Sorry I brought it up. Sounds like this bothers you.”
“It does, and it’s been twenty-four years.”
“I’ll not bring it up again.”
“It’s OK. Things you bury eventually come back to haunt. This particular part of my life was buried a long time. Sometime I’ll tell you about it. Call it a learning experience.”
“I’ll take you up on that,” she said, finally sitting down at the table, just as Mike appeared behind her. He was carrying two overly large duffels.
“Looks like our driver is finally here. About damned time,” I said with fake irritation, looking at my watch.
“Sorry Colonel, real soldier-business to attend to. I’m sure nothing you’ve ever troubled yourself with,” Mike said, shaking my hand.
“Probably right, Mike. You ready?”
“Yep. Your bags in the rig?” he asked
“Yeah. You need a hand?” I’d brought my new gear bags out earlier, and stashed them in Mike’s newly-assigned Humvee. This one, according to the motor pool sergeant, actually had a heater that worked. And, I noted as I tossed my two bags in the back, freshly painted, riveted-on patches covering a stitch of holes from automatic weapons fire on the driver’s side.
“Let a superior officer haul a Ranger’s gear? When Hell freezes solid around David Lambert’s tortured soul,” Mike said, referring to the former United States President, now President of the State of America. Many creative insults had been fashioned about Lambert, some making hay on the ‘lamb’ in his name, many disputing his parentage, the only thing in common was the universal hatred.
Sarah laughed a little at that. “I was expecting another sheep joke, maybe with Secretary Canlin being the shepherd this time,” she said, referring to a popular string of jokes and cartoons about Lambert being on the receiving end of a lonely shepherd. Canlin was their Secretary of State. Usually, in the versions I’d heard, it was the ISC being the shepherd. Lambert was universally on the receiving end though. The Internal Security Cooperative was even more hated than Lambert. ISC was the modern, North American equivalent of Hitler’s SS.
“C’mon. Let’s get moving before my cell phone rings again,” Mike said.
“Yeah. She said she had a surprise for me when I get home, and wanted to time it.”
“Food,” Sarah said. “Gotta be.”
“Maybe,” I said, thinking it could be something else. “Might be something both aerobic and horizontal in nature,” I said, deadpanning it.
Sarah thought about what I’d said in my matter-of-fact delivery, before she realized what I meant. “You’re awful!” she said after a moment, turning red and laughing uncontrollably. “You men!”
A few minutes later we were off post, winding our way home behind a string of heavy trucks moving gear from the fort to God-knows-where.
“This thing ever going to heat up?” Sarah asked. “It’s freezing in here.”
“About the time we hit the driveway,” I said. “Mike, is Ash going to stay in the place while you’re gone? That place seems a lot to manage.”
“We’ve got help there now. I’ve got a retired State Patrolman and his wife helping out while I’m gone. And to boot, he’s a pretty good farmer. Had a place north of Newport, but his wife needed more medical care than he could get up there. Seemed a good fit.”
“You do have the room for them, that mother-in-law suite and all,” I said before getting back to Sarah. “So, Sare, what are you picking up at the infirmary?”
“Tons of stuff. Holistic medicinal practices for depression, even aromatherapy, which I used to think was a bunch of hooey….except it works. Working my way through the thousand pages of the Physicians’ Desk Reference for Nonprescription Drugs, Dietary Supplements and Herbs. Wound trauma is kind of a continuing theme, but we’re also learning about use of colloidal silver, and purifying elderberry extracts for influenza and a bunch of alternate uses for other common stuff. Iodine is pretty cool.”
“All sounds pretty good to me,” Mike said.
“Plenty of downsides. Cancer victims can’t do much for them. Heart patients lots of congestive heart failure. We can medicate a little with some diuretics, but not much more. Organ recipients are going into rejection without their anti-rejection meds. Asthma has skyrocketed….and then there’s the lung scarring from the flu, plus no meds. Hepatitis patients going into end stage liver failure….”
“I take back my comment,” Mike said in reply. “I didn’t think about that stuff.”
“We really saw the first wave…losing patients, that is…back in the spring when the really medically dependent people lost their regular meds. Most of those we’re losing now were on maintenance drugs. Some were undiagnosed.”
“Let me ask a hard question. Maybe you’ve talked with your instructors about this. ‘How long until you lose the majority of these patients—and you, ahem, have a stable population?’”
“Hard question. Much discussed. No more than a year.”
“Wow,” I said. “That has to be unbelievably difficult to deal with.”
“I think the staff is used to it, honestly. I know I’m not. Some days are really tough. I can’t do the kids cancer ward anymore. I just can’t handle it.”
“Sarah, I’m sorry I brought this up,” I said, turning to face her in the back seat.
“It’s OK. It’s good to talk about it. I kinda bottle that up inside.”
“I’m guilty of that too. It’s not all that healthy.”
“Villa Drummond, on the right,” Mike said as we slowed to turn into the driveway.
“Oh-six-hundred, Colonel. Do you need a wakeup call?” Mike asked, laying it on a little thick.
“Not hardly. We’re heading over to…”
“Security, Colonel. Need to know and all…” Mike said, reminding me to shut my mouth.
“Sorry. Thanks for keeping me out of the stockade.”
“Somebody’s got to.”
“C’mon, Sarah. Mike’s got a hot date.”
“Or a nice dinner, I think.”
“I’ll not wager,” I said as I grabbed my bags from the rear seat, piled next to Sarah.
“C’mon. Stay for dinner,” I said, inviting her in.
“Thanks. That’d be nice,” she said as Mike’s Humvee pulled out and headed back up the road. She took one of my bags watching me struggle a little bit. “So, before we go inside, can you answer a question for me?”
“Sure, unless it’s classified. Of course, I could forget it’s classified….”
“Do you think we’ll win?”
“Yes,” I said. “No doubt about it.”
“How can you be so sure? They’re drafting more people I hear, starting like Monday. And we heard about a recall of all former military, no exceptions. Is that real?”
“Probably, yeah. On both counts. I’m probably an example of some of that, despite the fact I wasn’t in the armed forces. And I’m no kid,” I said as we reached the front porch.
“Will John come back here? Will he be in…your command?”
“I don’t know the answer to that. I do suspect that he’s going to be one of the last to get shipped out for ‘basic.’ They’re going to have to start training locally,” I said, not really answering her question. “Sarah, I pray that he’ll stay safe. I don’t know that he will. I’ve seen a lot of crap in my life that has shaken me to the core. When John was born, Libby and Ron were scared for him then, he had some issues at birth. I knew that he’d be OK though, and I don’t know how I knew that, I just did. I hope that he still will. I just don’t know.”
“Thanks for being honest.”
“Some things need to be said straight out. These are those kinds of days.”
“Let’s get inside. Karen’s watching us,” Sarah said with a little guilt.
“She’s a mind reader. I suspect she knows you needed to talk. You need to take advantage of her listening ability. She’ll be there for you. And you should take the same opportunity with your future mother-in-law.”
“I will. Thanks,” she said as she opened the front door. Karen was setting the table. Buck and Ada were waiting for me, sniffing my new uniform, bags, and rifle case.
“You two have a nice talk?” she said with a smile.
“Yes we did. Thanks,” Sarah said. “How are you, Karen?”
“Good now that my hubby’s home. This news is depressing,” Karen said as I gave her a kiss, taking off my Army issue parka.
“Where from?” I asked, seeing Buck snag one of my heavy gloves from the parka pocket.
“Los Angeles, Texas, you name it,” Carl said from the kitchen. “And Colorado, but they’re not talking about that on TV. Plenty on shortwave though.”
“Hmmm,” I said, looking at the dining room table, now extended to its full length. “OK if Sarah stays for dinner?”
“Absolutely. The Martins will be here any minute. Alan and Mary are over with Mom. Rache and Marky are upstairs with Kelly.”
“Great! Sarah, make yourself at home,” I said, “but that does not mean you’re peeling potatoes.”
“Right. She can help with the beets instead,” Karen said with a wink.
“How’s Mom doing?” I asked.
“Ornery. Wants out as in ‘right quick.’”
“Nothing happens that quickly these days,” I said.
“No, but the Woolsley’s house plans are coming along,” Karen said. “Thanks to Ron and Alan and their contacts.”
For some reason, that struck me as a statement that excluded me. I didn’t like it.
“Do tell. They had a busy day I’d bet.”
“Lots done. I won’t spoil their thunder—they’ll tell you over dinner. Now, spill it,” Karen said. “What’s the word?”
“East?” she said, obviously having listened to the radio broadcasts, official and otherwise.
“Yep, although I’m not at liberty to say where.”
“I can guess. The guys figured as much, and with Mike shipping out too, and this new draft coming…”
“I’m not in a combat outfit, hon,” I said, knowing that really didn’t matter, and not caring that Sarah and Carl were in the room.
“Right. And that long-gun is for what exactly?” she said, pointing to my ‘California’ in it’s slip case.
“Varmints,” I said with a smile. That really didn’t soothe her deep concern. “Now, what’s that nice smell coming from the kitchen?”
“Baked chicken, and you know that very well,” Karen said with a ‘tone’ in her voice.
“We are nothing if not regular in poultry, Sarah,” I said, further trying to lighten her mood. “Sometimes to the point of distraction.”
“Sorry, Chicago deep dish pizza wasn’t available at Costco.”
“Costco isn’t available at Costco. And when, seriously was the last time you had a decent pizza?” Sarah said, laughing.
“About the same time I had a really nice shrimp scampi,” I said.
“Now let’s not go down that route,” Karen said. “We’ll all just end up depressed and hungry, rather than just depressed.”
The dogs ran to the back door, hearing our dinner guests crossing the yard, despite the snow cover.
“I’m going to go change quick,” I said, moving to get into civilian gear.
“Oh, no you’re not. Not until we get pictures with you in your uniform,” Karen said.
“Jeez. Like Easter when I was a kid. ‘Stay in your dress clothes until we get all the pictures done!’ It’s not like it’s my dress outfit,” I said. Digital camo isn’t exactly chic.”
“Holy smokes. You look like you’re wearing a slipcover,” Ron said as he saw me.
“Better to blend in to the local living rooms, watch a little TV, and move on,” I said.
“Securing popcorn and ESPN for all,” Alan said.
“Well, that and freedom,” I replied, shaking his hand.
“At least you now have clothing to match that haircut,” Ron countered.
“You two really ought to go into standup. I could probably arrange that with the local draft board…”
“Don’t you dare,” Libby said. “I’ll have your….oh, I better not say that.”
“You just said it without saying it, Lib,” Ron said to his wife.
“One piece of good news for you both though: Your chances of getting drafted aren’t that good. Too soft,” I said, kidding of course. “And you’re classified essential, for some reason known but to God and General Anderson.”
“It’s our general contracting ability,” Ron said to Alan. “I told you word’d get out.”
“Stellar barter negotiations. That’s my bet. Half the county’d starve without us.”
“The mutual admiration society factor is definitely kicking in,” Sarah said. “And me without my hip waders.”
“Lib, this young lady has your husband and my brother in law pegged.”
“She does at that. Only took me five years!” Libby said with no small amount of love.
A round of home brew and fifteen minutes of digital photographs later, I was able to change into jeans and a flannel shirt, my native garb.
Over dinner with the grown-ups (Alan’s young ones had been excused to watch Brave Little Toaster), everyone studiously avoided asking me about my orders. That was appreciated, but it was handled almost to the point of ignoring the obvious, even that stuff that had been publicized, officially and otherwise. Only over dessert did the discussion nose into areas that I couldn’t talk about.
“You going to Denver?” Ron asked. I could see that Carl wanted to ask that.
“Can’t really say. Doubtful. Now do me a favor and don’t ask. Next subject.”
“I spoke with one of my cousins today in Fresno,” Mary said. “So there’s your next subject.”
“You did?” Alan asked, obviously shocked. “And you’re keeping this a secret?”
“Some good news, some not. I wasn’t quite ready to share.”
“Is Diana OK?” Alan asked.
“She is—but she wasn’t home. She’s working at the Fresno Army Terminal. She lost Pete to the flu,” she said. Pete was her husband, I remembered. “She remarried two months ago. Everyone else down there—our aunts and uncles, all of our cousins except Jeanine, went back to Texas right after the market tanked. My Uncle Clay had a big ranch down there. They figured it was safer.”
“Did you get their phone number?” Alan asked. I watched and listened.
“Tried it. No answer.”
“How’re things in Fresno?” I asked.
“Jeanine said things were pretty bad, but not like up here. Most of their problems at first were labor related—as in, no one to work the fields and farms—all the Mexicans left when the economy started going down. Things have gone to pot since then.”
I thought about that for a minute. “Funny how that sounds better than up here, so much better I mean.”
“Other people’s troubles always sound better than your own, until you try them on for size,” Libby said.
Mary had more details of course, one of the more interesting to me anyway, was of the mega-farms that produced single crops mostly for export out of the region, failing due to the lack of market. How many million acres of nuts do you really need, when what your body needs is a balanced diet? The factory farms of the Central and San Joaquin Valleys as I remembered them were anything but diverse. The failures were spectacular, with walnut groves going up in flames after months of no irrigation; massive dairies slaughtering milk-cows for lack of feed and water. I wondered in a morbid way, what were the artifacts of the factory farm, and would lessons be learned or just as quickly forgotten?
We talked until quite late that evening about how the Metro stores had evolved, the barter network had expanded, and of the many shortages that were now appearing as more and more wear and tear on everyday necessities caught up with precious supply. The growing problems of security, of seed for next years’ crops, of failures of food preservation.
Our own crops would sustain us, but the labor to produce the food was staggeringly high. The storage effort, along with everything else just normal ‘life’ in these depleted times demanded, was wearing on us all. There were so many around us that had so little to live on, really, that our own security felt inadequate.
The problem with sharing, is that there are some who see you as rich, when you have merely saved; that you have plenty, but what you really have is a closely held belief to help; that you have more than you ‘deserve’, even when some—those that will not work to save or provide for themselves—never have enough.
It was easy for the lot of us to see that we might be able to make it another year before some event or other—a breakdown of a water system at the wrong time, a change in local leadership, a crop failure, whatever—made our ‘recovery’ effort fail. Our damaged infrastructure and our devastated distribution system and our crashed economy would do us in without some dramatic ‘good news.’
That ‘good news’ had to be the war. If we won and a restored United States of America were able to devote the resources of the nation to true recovery, then we might be OK. If we lost the war, there could be no recovery. There could only be further collapse, balkanization, tyranny, more death.
It was a half-hour before midnight before we were talked out and tired, but did take time for another bite of dessert before bedtime. I thought that Karen probably understood better at that point why I was called up, why I was going, why it was so important.
Everything depended on us winning.