Monday, May 10, 2010
Grand Island, Nebraska
Second Lieutenant Daniel Van Hook had grown up in Iowa, outside of Pella, before moving to Ellensburg, Washington to attend college. It was near coincidence that he found himself back in Iowa, and managed to play a huge role in getting A Company good intel by almost immediately locating one of the family farms. Sometimes, it is all about whom you know.
The DeJong farm, Clara told me over a very early breakfast of oatmeal and black coffee, had been in the family for a hundred and seventy-five years, with many relatives scattered across eleven counties. Family reunions ran into the thousands of attendees, pre-War. The last one had to be held at the County Fairgrounds, because there wasn’t enough room on any single farm to handle them all.
Well ahead of the Second Depression, many of the farms in the region had thinned their herds, dramatically reduced land under cultivation, and in general contracted as they could see the storm approaching. The DeJong clan in particular, was debt averse, and self-financed all operations, and had done so since nearly losing half of their farmland to the banks in the First Depression. With depressed prices, cuts and then elimination of subsidies, those farms that were running on credit went under.
Being fairly far away from a large population center weighed in the favor of most of the farms, well off the highways and main roads. As the collapse began though, anything within a hundred miles of a large population center began to see dramatic increases in city residents, fleeing the Guangdong Flu; running from possible nuclear attack; getting out of the city to ‘live off the land’.
The math was simple enough: Most people typically had a half-tank or a quarter tank of gas in their cars, pre-War. Once things started to come apart, refueling was difficult or impossible, and whatever they’d had before things started going down, were ‘less’ due to their driving around looking for fuel or taking the wrong road or just being wasteful. Most people, it turned out, had a hundred miles or so of vehicle range, with most refugees exiting highways and heading onto frontage roads anywhere from seventy-five miles out to a hundred and fifty miles out. Beyond that, the ‘countryside’ was relatively unmolested.
Defensive measures in the heartland ranged from enforcement of Rule .308, meaning, hitting any looter or credible threat with a .308 round at considerable distance; to blocking roads with deep trenches; to hiding roads completely by plowing them over. Many of the DeJong families’ driveways were long and unpaved. Making them less visible especially when windbreaks and natural vegetation assisted in the camouflage, assisted the preservation of many of their families.
Clara and her husband Gerritt’s home was fairly prominent, located on one of the main County roads. It had also been under reconstruction due to tornado damage, never completed before the Second Depression. They made their own adaptations, mostly for looks once the collapse was well underway, by making it look like a burned out wreck. Half of the roof was already off, rafters exposed, siding was missing, windows removed on the second floor. With the addition of black paint, sprayed on above and adjacent to the empty windows and across the soffits in a burn pattern, and on the rafters of course, the place looked from a quarter mile away like a burned out farmhouse. The addition in the yard of old furniture and junk, made it look like it had been looted in addition to being burned.
Inside the house, they’d built a cocoon of sorts, well insulated, well secured, and enclosed by the larger shell. The home was connected through the basement to the large storm cellar, an Iowa requirement. Both were connected to a cistern that collected rainwater from the equipment shed and barn roofs, both metal. Cooking was done only deep into the night on a highly efficient wood stove, and warming fires were kept small in the superinsulated house. Lighting included kerosene lanterns, candles, and propane while it lasted. Refrigeration included using an icehouse, left from the eighteen hundreds.
A ravine to the rear of the house concealed normal foot traffic from the roadside viewer, with livestock kept in a very old barn at the far end of the ravine. It was outwardly decrepit and unused, but was structurally reinforced. The DeJong’s dairy goats, hens, and meat rabbits resided there. Once the transient population settled down (either through attrition or through being encouraged to move on), they moved some of their cattle closer.
Most of the S.A. that flooded through the state, westbound, weren’t interested in looking around except for food, and food didn’t necessarily include food on the hoof…it came from stores. Some farms further away had livestock slaughtered, but not consumed for either sport, or sheer malice. They swept through to the larger cities, consumed, and moved on. They conscripted troops along the way when they could find people. They only burned cities and towns when they retreated. They killed those who resisted at any time.
As with any Resistance movement, the primary mission was to disrupt the S.A. in any way they could without getting killed or compromising the larger effort. In the American heartland, this included picking off S.A. supporters, sometimes in “industrial accidents” or through more direct means. In the first few days of ‘occupation’ (the period of time after the S.A. announced their ‘being’, and before the shooting war arrived), there were a remarkable number of hunting accidents. The informers were relatively easy to spot and the sycophants already known, making themselves targets along the way. Clara DeJong was group coordinator for a hundred square miles, and had connections to many other cells in the region.
Once the obvious targets had been taken care of, the Resistance helped place their own people in positions of influence, which then allowed them an inside look. Shipping schedules, supply routes, communications protocols were then opened up to the Resistance. The Resistance was well underway in disrupting shipping to the front lines when the Rangers came into the picture. Only a few attacks had been planned and executed, with more on the way, when the tables turned.
Clara didn’t know who in the network had been turned, or how. It became immediately apparent though that the S.A.’s Internal Security Force was hunting down the DeJong extended families, with cells dropping out of communication and ‘going dark.’ Clara hoped that many of her cousins were able to flee south, where the S.A.’s forces were thinner and the lines porous. She did know that some had been captured, with verification that others had been killed.
With her home lost, Clara would ship west with the Rangers, changing trains in Denver and eventually out to California’s Central Valley, where her younger sisters lived. Someday, she might be able to find her husband and sons.
“Colonel Drummond, Colonel Amberson to see you sir,” Private Kittrick announced in my ear. I’d been talking with two of the battalion point squads, north of Grand Island, where civilians were starting to reappear and move south. One unit reported that the civilians appeared to be starved, and had obviously walked for miles. Transport would be heading north along County roads, somewhat risky, as none of the roads had been cleared of potential IED’s.
“Send him in, Private. Thanks,” I said. I had only seen Mike for a moment as I finished up breakfast with Clara. He was with his men, barking a little at one of them. I didn’t get in the way.
“Colonel, good morning,” he said, looking five years younger than he had the day before, clean-shaven, fresh utilities, new boots and parka.
“Morning, Mike,” I said, shaking his hand firmly. “How’d you sleep?”
“Like I was in a coma. I blame it on the Scotch,” he said, for the first time showing a little of the ‘old’ Mike Amberson.
“Three fingers in a tumbler can hardly have that effect.”
“Might have been more psychological in nature,” he said. I noted the bandage on his head was gone, but a number of stitches were quite apparent. “We’ll be in transit pretty quick. I wanted to convey my thanks, and the thanks of the men. You’ve got a great outfit.”
“Had good stock when I showed up. Most of Third has served on the Line at some point during the war, or in the sandbox, or in the ‘stan. I think they understand what you guys went through better than most any one,” I said as Kittrick caught my eye.
“Mister Kittrick?” I said.
“Sirs, Nineteen is three minutes from scheduled departure, just a reminder,” he said, a little nervous to interrupt us. “And Colonel Amberson, the evac birds have arrived in Colorado Springs safely.” Twelve of Mike’s men were aboard, and would spend a considerable amount of time in the hospital and in rehab.
“Thanks, Private,” Mike said. “Rick, I better get moving. Part of me wishes otherwise.”
“The minority part. Get your ass home to your lovely wife and your children. And take this back to Karen and my two, if you would,” I said, handing him a small package. My own letters, to Karen and our kids.
“I’d be happy to,” he said as he stood to attention, and saluted crisply. I returned it, less so, and shook his hand. “Watch yourself, Rick. Don’t overextend. Sure as Hell it will come back to bite you,” he said.
“I think I said the same thing to General Garcia not long ago,” I said. With that, Mike nodded and headed out of the Command Car, homeward bound. I was in part envious, but knew that our mission was nowhere close to being called ‘finished.’ Since I’d met Karen, we’d never spent a Christmas or New Year’s apart. This year would be different.
“Orders incoming, sir. San Antonio,” Kittrick said to me as I looked at the weather report. Warming weather, temps in the thirties, and heavy rains expected.
“Decrypt and send them to my monitor, Private.”
“Will do, sir.”
I’d been expecting them. Our departure orders for ‘down line.’ Senior staff had a pool going, whether it would be Lincoln, Omaha, or somewhere outside Kansas City. Lincoln had fallen back into U.S. hands, but only after a siege; Omaha was still in S.A. control; as was Kansas City.
It was Lincoln. We were to be relieved by a new Army and civilian relief. The Army unit would come from the Mexican frontier, the civilians from Utah and Nevada. In a new development, Command was telling us other probable future destinations: next, Omaha, after that, Des Moines.
Sixty miles downline, we had “best possible time” to get there.
“Mister Kittrick, it’s Lincoln. Two hours we have an inbound with our relief. Get Major Ryder in here, pronto.”
Third Washington was already in the early stages of tear-down even before our orders came in. The troop trains passing through were the first obvious sign to the Brigade; the lack of ‘recovery’ and ‘restoration’ in Grand Island was another. Third had worked their way out of work. It was time to go.
Grand Island had a civilian population of two hundred and six, half of them relief workers. The city had one unreliably working water system, thirty square blocks of restored electrical grid, no natural gas. Not much left to rebuild.
East of Grand Island, Nebraska
Departure from Grand Island had been delayed until morning, which gave our relief unit more time to set up and be briefed. Our staff wasn’t all that upset about it, either—no one liked running down the track in the dark in territory that might or might-not have enemy roaming about.
Track repair teams had gone ahead of all rail traffic moving east, ensuring that the tracks were safe for travel. Quite a few transport trains—but few cargo trains—had made the run to Lincoln. The previous trains had also been shorter than either ‘Charlie’ or ‘Dog’, and quite uneven in their arrivals. Resuming traffic with a predictable pattern might present an opportunity for an S.A. team to ‘disrupt traffic’, the sanitized version of, ‘destroy a train.’
The Battalion commanders and senior staff had finished our briefing meeting not long after oh seven hundred, prior to departure for Lincoln. Our travel would take us through the ‘Hobson’ rail yard south of Interstate Eighty, where most of the supply trains would stage. ‘Charlie’ would stage near the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus; ‘Dog’ would stage on the northern edge of the rail yard. Two other trains, belonging to Idaho’s ‘Gem State’ Brigade, would also stage in Lincoln. ‘Able’ at the municipal airport; ‘Baker’ in another rail yard northeast of town along U.S. Six, the ‘Cornhusker Highway.’ The Idaho units were moving east from Denver, following us along.
Intel provided by advanced ground crews and limited aerial reconnaissance showed that most of Lincoln was relatively intact. The notable exceptions included almost all of the downtown area, the heavily damaged State Capitol, and many of the freeway overpasses. Aerial images showed the wreckage of hundreds of vehicles blocked by the destroyed bridges, abandoned or bombed, not unlike North Platte.
A quarter million people lived in Lincoln, before the War. The sketchy reports from the city stated that perhaps a third of that number was still present, after the siege, now they were hungry and cold.