Friday, March 12, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 33


Wednesday Morning
November Twenty-second
06:00 hours

 I’d been up since before five, Karen as well, helping my with my last-last minute packing and making me corned beef hash, eggs, toast, and apple juice, none of which I’d likely have again, any time soon.  Both dogs thought they were entitled to some too, but I wasn’t about to surrender.
She’d roused the kids at five thirty to spend some time with me, and both were pretty sullen—I couldn’t blame them, I wasn’t exactly chipper myself. Kelly was doing her best to keep from crying. Carl probably was too, but was putting up a better show. I’d had long talks with each of them about my new role. Neither of them liked it, but understood, sort of, it seemed.
Outside, the Expedition was parked in the driveway, ready to shuttle me to the rail yard, and for continued service after I’d left—it had appeared overnight as the surprise that I’d hoped for. Karen would have a ‘farm’ pass for the use of the Expedition, no more unrestricted driving with my Metro pass, now turned in. Many other things would change with me ‘gone’, along with my pass, went a priority for security, the Metro-frequency radio, and the considerable influence that I could wield, if I were of the mind to.

Loading my gear out to the Ford, Carl took one look at it and immediately called it, “bad-ass.” 

“Not bad, huh?” I said from under my parka hood. It was really cold, but I hadn’t bothered to look at the temperature. Sometimes, it’s best not to.

“Hate the wheels though. They’re ugly.”

“Yeah, but they have new all-season Michelins on them, that before the war would’ve cost three-hundred apiece,” I said. “Get used to them. You’ll be driving this thing about too, you know.”

“Sweet,” he said.

“Go get your sis and Momma.  We should be good to go.”

“We’re already here,” Karen said. “And you forgot your day-pack.”

“I did at that,” I said. “Want a job as my porter?”

“No, just as your wife and lover.”

“Done. Get your bags,” I said as I gave her a kiss.

“I’ll have to clear my calendar. Sorry, no go.”

“Next time, then.”

“As long as there’s no war, it’s a date.”

“You driving or me?” I asked.

“You are,” Karen said. “Show me the routine. That way I won’t get us in trouble.”

“You’ll be OK, just follow the plowed roads, and don’t tick off anyone with a gun.”

“Easy for you to say,” she said. “I don’t pack a forty-five.”

“You should. Get that compact model out and start wearing it. I’m serious.”

“I have it, it’s in my purse.”

“Needs to be in reach in a moment’s notice, babe.”

“I know. Alan’s getting one of his harness makers to put a holster together for me.”
“Good. And that will apply to the kids any time now,” I said.

“I don’t really like that,” she said. “And you don’t either.”

“No, I don’t. Unfortunately it’s our reality right now,” I said as I started up the Ford, the first time in months. It felt odd.   The CD player blared to life, with Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker and the Byrds version of Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages sending me way back in time.

We crossed over the freeway to Trent, past the wreckage of the previous night’s structure fire. With a skiff of new snow, there was little to see that couldn’t have been there for six months. There were no vehicles on any of the roads we drove, and scarce evidence of vehicle traffic overnight.
The few cars that were about were all headed to the rail yard checkpoint, with full searches going on for every vehicle entering the drop off area. We’d be in that group.

“Is this normal? Did you have this yesterday?” Karen asked.

“No. Honestly, I’m not sure what normal is these days,” I replied. We had three cars in front of us, and armed soldiers moving down the line, weapons ready. I rolled down my window, and made sure my Army I.D. was out, and my insignia showing.  I also turned up the heater…and noticed that we had a full tank of gas. I hadn’t thought to check that.

“Identification, please, sir,” the corporal, with an unranked armed soldier behind him asked.

“Here you go,” I asked. “What’s our security level today?”

“Red two, sir. You’re Third Washington?”

“Colonel Drummond, commanding.”

“Thank you, sir. Please pull over to the left for additional screening.”

“Thanks, Corporal.” 

I pulled ahead of the two cars ahead of us, both of which were being searched. They appeared to contain full loads of rail yard workers, mechanics, and engineers, carpooling in. Each car was being thoroughly searched.
I parked the Ford where directed, and was directed to step out of the vehicle, along with all other passengers.

“Good morning, Colonel. You and your passengers can step over there under cover, if you would,” an Air Force Security Policeman asked.

“No problem. Thanks.”

“Sir, can I inquire as to your baggage?” a sergeant asked before I walked over to the shelter, looking over my regulation load, the heap and my personal gear.

“Full and Combat load in the packs on the left.  My California’s in a hard case to the right. The ammo cans at the front have one hundred rounds of armor piercing 30.06, twenty-five rounds of tracer, the rest is match-grade ball, along with a thousand rounds of ammo for my .45’s. They’re all labeled if you want to look. My personal gear is on the left, the usual contraband.  The long case is a Springfield 1903 sporter, cleaning kit, and more ammo in pouches.”

“Not exactly regulation, is that?” he said before adding, “Sir.”

“Not in this war. Several wars previous though. It was kinda tough deciding to take that one or my Garand.”

“Thank you, sir. Dog’ll be over in a minute to give the car a sniff, along with the underbody inspection. After that you’ll be directed to the marshalling area near Charlie Six.”

“Charlie Six?”

“Sorry, sir. That’s your trains’ designation.”

“Got it. Thanks again.”

Under the ‘shelter’, in reality six sheets of corrugated metal nailed to a light wooden frame, my family waited patiently.
“Lot of security for this,” Carl said.

“It’d be a coup for the S.A. if they took out a troop train behind the lines, don’t you think?”  I said as a large German Shepherd and his handler approached the Ford.

“Yeah, I guess,” he said.

“They’d do that, too, wouldn’t they?” Karen said.

“Hon, they would do anything and everything imaginable to achieve their goals.”

In a couple minutes, the dog and the underbody mirror inspection were complete, and we were allowed to continue on to the parking area near the train, about fifty feet from the Command Car.  Other than two Humvees, we’d be ‘it’ in the parking area.  The locomotives were already running at idle.

“This is your new home?” Karen said.

“No, my home is my home. This is my train though.”

“How many men and women aboard? How many are with you?” Kelly asked as I got out of the Ford.

“Fifteen hundred men, no women. Second train will have roughly another fifteen hundred. We’re a little shy of the three thousand we’re supposed to have.” Carl was already out and had opened the rear hatch.

“Why no women?”

Without getting graphic and giving Kelly the real reason, I said “This war is no place for women. The Statists have already proven that.”

She got the point. “Oh.”

“Carl, second car back, this end. That’s my bunkhouse. The other end is one of the other officers.  The command car is that one over there,” I said, pointing it out. “That’s where I’ll spend most of my time,” I said, not adding, ‘If I’m damned lucky.’
Karen wasn’t saying anything…I don’t think I was expecting her to, either though.

“Morning, Colonel Drummond,” a voice greeted me from behind.

“Good morning, Major,” noting he did not salute me. Salutes out of doors in active battle areas tended to get one killed.  “Major Gary Ryder, this is my wife Karen, son Carl, and my daughter Kelly.”

“Nice to meet you all,” he said.  “Moment, sir?”

“You bet,” I said. “Karen, head on over to my car and I’ll be there in a minute.”   Major Ryder and I stepped a few feet away to talk in private.

“We’re an hour fifteen from departure-ready.  Three quarters of the compliment are already aboard, the remainder will be aboard within the half-hour, sir.”

“Good. Please assemble the brigade senior staff in forty minutes for our morning brief, and the battalion commanders at ten hundred in the conference car. Any issues with transit between cars when we’re underway? I hadn’t thought to ask that.”

“No, sir, with the exception of the defensive carriages. Any other car can be accessed up to those,” he said. “Sir, I didn’t mean to interrupt. My apologies. I’ll let you get back to your send-off, sir.”

“Thanks, Major. No problem.”

Carl and Kelly had ascended the outboard ladder to the side door of my car, and let themselves in.  Karen waited for me at the bottom of the stairs.

“This is it, huh?” Karen said, looking at the former Chinese transport container, now modified for Army use.

“Yep. Go on up and take a look,” I said.  We could hear Carl say, ‘this is cool,’ as we reached the top of the stairs.
Inside, my half of the eight foot wide, twenty foot long container included a full size bed, desk and chair, side chair and a fold out table, a closet and small galley (including a refrigerator, bar sink and microwave), and a small bathroom with a raised floor (to make room for the plumbing and on-board tanks) that had a stainless steel sink and vanity, medicine cabinet, toilet, and corner shower unit.  Each unit was equipped with towels, bedding, first aid supplies, and the regulation vitamins and minerals that someone in the Army deemed ‘required’.  The interior walls were a fiberglass-reinforced panel, which covered up a layer of light armor up to mid-height of the walls.

“Well, this is pretty nice,” Karen said. “Way better than I expected.”

“This is a two-bedroom unit. There’s the command unit, which is double the size of my unit; there’s laundry and galley units; shower units; ten- and thirty-man bunkhouses; generating plants; water and sewage treatment units, the whole schmeer.” I didn’t mention ‘armory’, ‘machine shop’, or the ‘defensive units.’

“All built from sea-crates,” Karen said.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“And you have heat?”

“And air conditioning. And the whole train is pretty well self sufficient, really, each car, as long as we have diesel.”

Carl had hauled in one of the Army packs. I’d grabbed one of my personal bags.  One more trip and we’d have the bags, and then a couple more for the rest.   We made pretty short work of it, and then….it was time for our goodbyes.

“You remember the last time you left me,” Karen said.

“Of course. I promise I will try to return in one piece, this time.”

“Good. I’ll hold you to that,” she said as she hugged me and moved to kiss me. “And you hurry home to me.”

“I will do my best,” I said. “And take care of my kids.”

“I will. I’m going to miss you,” she said as her voice started to crack.

“I know hon. Remember how much I love you.”

“I will.”

“And you two,” I said to the kids, hovering uncomfortably and not knowing what to do, “Make me proud and be there for your Mom while I’m gone.”

“Come home, Daddy,” Kelly said as they both hugged us.

“I will, babe. I will.”

Carl and I had a private moment after Karen and Kelly got back in the Ford.

“You take care of them for me, Carl. I know you think you’re too young to be the man of the house, but I know you can do this.  And you should know by now how proud I am of you. You’ve learned a lot this year, and I think you know how much you still have to learn, just like me.”

“I’ve got a pretty good idea, yeah,” he said, embarrassed.

“You’ll do fine. Ask Alan and Ron for advice. Frequently,” I said. “And keep up on your work with the kids and at church, OK?”

“O.K.,” he said. “And Dad? Will you be able to call us?”

“I hope so, yeah. I really don’t know, but I’ll try.”

“O.K. We better go.  You’ve got a couple guys over there looking at you,” he said.

“I’m popular. Drive safe on the way home. Get straight home. Follow any Army or Guard or Sheriff’s directions. We’re still under curfew.”

“I know. And we have Grandma to move today. That’ll be interesting.”

“Yeah. As if your Mom and Alan don’t have enough stress. Try to make it easy for them if you can,” I said.

Too soon thereafter, they were on their way home, me standing there waving goodbye, wiping more than one ice-cold tear from my ice cold cheeks.

“Coffee, Colonel?” one of the Privates asked, carrying a handful of mugs and a stainless steel thermos.

“Absolutely. Blacker the better,” I said. “And thanks.”

“No problem, sir. There aren’t that many people aboard who’re interested in staying awake.”

“I can’t blame them,” I said. “If I had much of a choice, I’d be sacked out myself.”

We’d headed east-northeast out of Spokane, sliced up through North Idaho, across the north end of Lake Pend Oreille, and into Montana.  I’d taken an Amtrak train once on the same route, moving closer to sixty miles per hour on that trip. This trip though, was sometimes half that.  It was heartening to see streetlights in Sandpoint, Idaho, and businesses open.
Our train, Charlie Six, and Dog Six behind us containing the second half of the Brigade and much more equipment, would slice diagonally across Montana, entering Wyoming on the ‘Colorado’ leg of the BNSF rail lines, rather than the ‘Powder River’ lines, which would take us straight into enemy territory. We’d either arrive at our final destination by skirting Denver, or hitting Denver and then heading east from there.
We’d finished up our senior staff meeting relatively quickly, with everyone reviewing work to be completed in transit, which sometimes required me to ask for less detail than more. I really didn’t care how many troops would be responsible for meal preparation during the trip, who was running what shift, etc. In only one case did this draw a look similar to panic.  The officer in question seemed to only act with initiative and approval provided by others, rather than acting on his own under the authority given him. This would be a continuing issue during my entire time with the Army….a culture of order-takers and followers rather than leaders and thinkers.
I left the communications area of the command car in charge of Jim Schaefer, the Brigade’s deputy commander/XO. The communications suites were busy with testing of the satellite uplinks, scans of multiple radio and broadcast frequencies from the Mississippi west, and continued civilian broadcasts of further details on the most recent attacks. One of the suites was dedicated to providing entertainment choices for the troops aboard, with a half-dozen selections of movies available to the flat panel displays in the troop transport cars.   I found it interesting that more than half of the video requests were for the Eighties classic, A Christmas Story. The tongue-stuck-to-frozen-flagpole scene, along with ‘I triple dog dare you’ will always be favorites of mine.
In my office area, adjacent to the command communications area, was cramped with equipment well before any human was inserted into it.  Inside though, I had a dedicated data link to any of the communications suites, as well as the ability to link to any military data feed available.  I chose to review Sixth Army’s tactical analysis and supporting data, hoping not to repeat their mistakes.
By three in the afternoon, we were approaching Columbia Falls, Montana, just outside of Glacier National Park, and met our first delay of the trip, caused by a freight derailment between there and Shelby.    I realized, in pre-War thinking of course, that I could have driven from Spokane to Columbia Falls and most of the way back in the time the train had taken to get us this far. 

“Excuse me, Colonel.  This delay looks like about three hours duration, conservatively,” Greg Shand said as he interrupted my review of the Sixth’s videotaped demise.

“How far behind us is Dog Six?”

“Forty-five minutes, sir. Engineers say they’ll go ahead and handle some maintenance work during the delay.”

“Leaving us to decide,” I said, before correcting myself, “rather, me to decide what to do with three thousand troops during the delay.”

“That was the next question to be posed you, but that was going to come from the XO, sir,” he said with a smile.

“If I recall, the total population of Columbia Falls, pre-War, was about four thousand. Seems a little much to inflict on a small town,” I thought. “How about you try to get the local Sheriff on the radio. I’ll have a talk with them.”

“I’ll see what we can do, sir.”

“Thanks, Captain,” I said.  He soon had assigned one of the techs to the job, and in five minutes, had Chief of Police Gary Davidson on the line for me. I didn’t ask how they did it, the answer would have probably been over my head in any regard.

“Chief, this is Colonel Rick Drummond. Thanks for taking the time to talk.”

“Well, Colonel, it’s not a problem. If I can ask, how did you get a hold of me? I’m in my patrol rig.”

“My staff as some electronic magic. I’m wondering if your city can handle some visitors for a couple of hours.”  There was a fairly long pause on the other end of the conversation.

“Well, I’m not sure. How many are we talking here?”

“Just shy of three thousand, for about three hours.”

“Holy smokes! I don’t know about that, Colonel. There’s only fifty-five hundred in the town!” he said.  Jim Schaefer was leaning on the doorframe, listening in on his own muted headset.

“Understood, Chief. We’ve got a delay due to a derailment between here and Shelby, and it’ll take some time to clear, I understand.  If there’s the chance to let the troops off the train for awhile, I thought I’d ask.”

“Don’t get me wrong, Colonel. I’m sure they’d be welcome, especially if they had some spending money or things to trade,” he said with some enthusiasm.  “We just don’t want or need any trouble.”

“Nor do I, sir. We’ll be pulling in within about twenty minutes, I understand. I’d like to give my troops the option to see your city, if they’d like.”

“I’ll spread the word, Colonel. I’ll meet you myself at the station.”

“Thanks, Chief. See you soon,” I said as I terminated the connection. “Captain Shand, patch me through to this train and to Dog Six if you would,” I said.

“Yes, sir,” Greg said.  I could hear the smile in his tone.

“This’ll be interesting, sir,” Jim said in the doorway. “Riding herd on three thousand troops in a small town.”

“They aren’t all going to go. First, it’s eleven degrees out there. Second, as I remember it, there aren’t that many things to do, eat, or see in this town. Of course, I could be wrong. It’s been five years since I was here last.”

“Patch is ready sir, Select station twelve on your base unit, and you’re on,” one of the techs said, pointing out the right button on the console. The lettering was probably easily read by the twenty-somethings, but not so much for us on the north side of forty.

“Good afternoon, this is Colonel Drummond.  We are approaching Columbia Falls at this time, where we will have a delay of approximately three hours due to a derailment ahead of us.  I have spoken with the local Chief of Police regarding our stop in Columbia Falls, and request your attention.”

“The Chief has informed me that Third Washington troops are welcome in the city, but the city is quite small and will certainly not be able to accommodate a massive surge of soldiers over a three hour period.  He’d also invite you to spend your money or conduct some trades.  I’d also like to make sure that everyone knows that it’s all of eleven degrees out there, probably pretty deep snow, and if you elect to leave the train during this delay, you will do so with the knowledge that if your train leaves without you, you’ll be charged or hunted accordingly. Visitors to Columbia Falls will travel in groups no smaller than squad strength, and squad leaders are responsible for their squad during this stopover. Battle rifles are to remain stowed aboard side arms however are required.  That is all,” I said.

“Not bad, Colonel,” Schaefer said. “Not bad.”

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