I turned twenty-one in a U.S. Army lookout tower, guarding nuclear warheads in Rhineland Germany, smoking hashish and cheating at poker. I’d gotten no days off in two months because the U.S. Army was short of MPs, and my squad had been pulled out of our normal electronic repair jobs and pressed into guard duty, babysitting the nukes, babysitting ourselves.
Three hours in my tower, three hours in the guardhouse squadroom, repeat.
Then I got twelve hours off in the barracks before I had to live yesterday all over again.
I sat between two electrified barbed-wire fences in one of ten individual wooden towers, armed with an M-14, to protect the storage bunkers and their warheads from the Russians. Because everyone knew they were coming, they’d seen the movies.
The morning of my birthday, I’d been talking to my friend Michael Schelling when Michael started crying. “This’ll be the end of me.” His voice thinned. “Florence wrote, says she’s met some guy. I gotta fly home before I lose her.”
“You got any leave coming?” I asked.
“Hell yes. But Sarge laughed at me, said no one was leaving till we got more MPs. I’m sure the SOB was happy, turning me down.”
“Getting more MPs will take forever.”
Michael took Florence’s picture out, a young, black-haired beauty, I Love You scrawled across the photo. “There’s no way she’s gonna stay married to me if I can’t get home. I gotta get out of here. I’m going crazy.”
He was a gentle soul. Most times I wanted to be Michael, with his light-brown, John-Lennon hair parted down the middle, the same round, rimless glasses, and those bell-bottoms he wore. Usually he talked in soft, Buddha-like phrases sounding like song lyrics. I felt sorry for him. Michael’s persona didn’t fly in an Army barracks. He was too easy to hurt. But I liked how he ignored the assholes.
However, I wasn’t used to consoling another guy. There was always someone moaning about Johnny back home taking his girl, and I tried to stay out of all that. Back in boot camp I would sometimes hear guys crying themselves to sleep in the squad bay. None of us wanted to be drafted. When my own girl, Lisa, dumped me barely two months after I left home, I thought the pain would blow a hole in my stomach. Even now I wouldn’t let myself think about it—her with some other guy. Michael’s pain was as physical as mine. I could hear it in his voice and see it in his face.
“I could shoot Sarge,” Michael said. “They do that in ’Nam if Sarge fucks with ’em.”
Shit, no way is John Lennon shooting anybody. “No, no, you don’t want to do that, you’d never get home.”
“Then I’m going AWOL. I’m buying a ticket on Lufthansa and using my passport instead of my Army ID. No one will call the base to see if I have permission to leave. By the time they figure out I’m AWOL, I’ll be landing in Boston.”
I thought that was a terrible idea, Michael basically throwing the rest of his life away to go see his wife. Was the price worth it? I wondered if I should talk him out of it. But after all those nights in boot camp and afterward, knowing what I went though, I really didn’t want Michael to suffer like I did.
“I need your help,” Michael said.
“What in hell can I do?”
“I don’t have enough money for the airfare. It costs five hundred fifty dollars. I only got three hundred.”
“Shit, I barely have enough to get through the month.”
“Tonight, during poker, you need to start one of your rambling drug stories and distract everyone. Then you glance at my cards and slip me the ones I need. We’ll push the pot higher by upping our bets. A couple big wins should be enough for the plane ticket.”
Noise ripped the air like a power saw. Through the dirty window of my four-man room, I saw the black belching of diesel smoke as a huge deuce-and-a-half pulled up to the barracks. Sarge Burdick, starched fatigues and crumpled face—a true Army lifer—came through the barracks, swearing if our squad wasn’t on the truck by 11:30, we’d all end up in the stockade. Everybody hustled down.
Michael sat next to me with sharp-tongued Guarneri, the New York guitar player, next to him. On my other side was Wineman, a well-fed farm boy from outside Philly, and then Coby, our swarthy drug dealer with the thin mustache, from Flint, Michigan. I’m Paddy from Chicago. The other fifteen guys on the truck looked equally miserable.
The five in my group had evolved a rotation system for relieving the boredom of sitting alone in freezing towers. The two towers closest to the ammo dump squadroom were always manned in case Sarge showed up and an alarm needed to be sent down the line. Our other towers we’d abandon, and we all gathered in Tower Five to smoke dope, play cards, and forget. Michael’s special forgetting recipe was dropping LSD every day.
Sarge leaned in over the back gate of the truck and sneered. “You scum better start behaving like real MPs. I don’t want no more whining about how things don’t work here like they did when you was fixing radars. And you, scumbag”—he pointed at Michael—“you can kiss anyleave goodbye if you don’t stop mouthing off.”
All I wanted to do when Sarge behaved like that was punch him out. But if Sarge was picking on Michael, he wasn’t picking on me. Life was hard enough without playing the hero.
Yet I felt I was meant to do something more with my life, my time. Not just read every book I could get my hands on and stay stoned until my hitch was up. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t a good enough friend and Michael was hurting. He’d befriended me when I first arrived in Germany because we were both Irish. He kept my loneliness at bay by introducing me around, driving me to parties off-post, listening to Bob Dylan with me. I would’ve been lost without his friendship.
So I made the decision to help him with the poker game and going AWOL.
The truck jostled us up, down, back and forth, side to side, helmet bobbing on my head, my forty-four-inch, ten-pound M-14 cold between my thighs. I was bent over, knapsack weighing me down, diesel stink, greatcoat over my Army jacket over fatigues over long johns, four layers and still freezing. Two pairs of socks under my combat boots, outer gloves over inner gloves. It was January then; I had eight months left in the stupid Army before I could go home.
The canvas cover over the truck shell did nothing to keep the cold out. We snuggled into one another, trying to find any warmth. Guarneri smelled of cheap Ripple wine, Coby of not showering, Wineman of cigarettes.
I’d done LSD twice with Wineman in very calm situations out in the Rhineland woods, and still, both times, it almost took my head off: nightmares, day-mares, chills, sweats, snakes dropping from the sky, trees morphing into dragons. It was fucked up. So I took the hint and never did LSD again. I couldn’t understand how Michael handled that stress every day.
Hashish just made me goofy, and I constructed elaborate, absurd stories, which caused the guys to laugh. I made up the wildest shit about going naked to holograph rock concerts or having an afro and being Hendrix’s stoned roadie and dropping his guitar, and the guys would roll on the floor, scream, and pass the pipe.
Michael always seemed to want to analyze how he ended up in Germany, why he couldn’t be in America with Florence and their daughter. I didn’t want to dwell on anything; I was just sick of the Army.
My decision to help Michael raise the money surprised me. Putting myself out for another guy was not my usual M.O. But I’d made my decision. I was helping my buddy. We decided to have the poker game during our last shift—nine to midnight.
I headed to Tower Five in icy hush, snowflakes pattering through the trees outside the fence. The snowpack crunched underfoot. I was in and out of the halo of each streetlamp in the pathway, shadow ahead, shadow behind, don’t touch the barbed wire, you’ll fry.
Climbing the ladder, I could hear them talking smack already. I suspected they’d harass me because of my birthday. When I opened the door, the sweet, burning hash smoke hit my face. I had to stay sharp, not get too stoned. I don’t have a poker face, but I knew I had to act like nothing mattered. Nothing could go wrong. It was Guarneri’s tower so he had a rifle inside.
The poker started. Five of us crowded into the tower, sitting in a circle on the cold, wooden floor, knee to knee. Coby called the first game, five-card stud—ante was a dollar.
Holding my hand up, I asked if they wanted to give me my birthday presents first. They jeered; nobody ever gave presents. As soon as Coby finished dealing the first two cards—face down, face up—I started a story, babbling about being in the woods, going daft on LSD and almost convincing Wineman to turn ourselves in at the base clinic. I was shit-scared I’d never be able to pull my mind back from the colors and demons.
While we perused our cards and they gave me grief, Michael furtively showed me his three in the hole. My hole card was an ace.
Guarneri said, “Only an idiot would go to the clinic on acid.”
Wineman bet first and all of us matched his dollar. Coby dealt another card. Michael got an ace. He bet two dollars and everyone matched him. Now there was twenty dollars in the pot.
“I got too stoned,” I said. Actually I panicked.
Wineman nodded agreement and passed the pipe to Michael.
As Coby dealt us another card, both Michael and I put our hole cards upside down on the floor between us. I knelt and lit the pipe for Michael. It crackled as he inhaled. After I blew the match out, I picked up his card, leaving my own ace for Michael to pick up.
When I looked over, Guarneri was staring hard at me.
The bets kept on through each round. The wind whipped up outside, blowing the cold in. The crummy little space heater did nothing to stop it. I pretended to take my hit off the pipe but blew all the smoke out. Finally Michael’s pair of aces won the $60 pot, and the guys pissed and moaned.
Guarneri leaned forward. He whispered to me, “You fucken cheating?”
I froze. “Are you stoned?”
“I’ll throw you into that barbed wire, fry your ass if you are.” Guarneri rocked back and forth like he was getting ready to jump.
He could go over the edge quick. I needed to calm him down.
“What? You can play killer Santana solos,” I flattered him. “Your hands, your eyes, your mind all move so fast, you can see every move I make. How the hell could I be cheating?”
“Schelling hasn’t won a hand in a month. How the hell does he win the first hand?”
“His luck’s gotta change sometime. And if you’re worried, we should play all cards face up. Then we’ll see everybody’s cards all the time.” He wouldn’t go for it, he was always bluffing. There’s no bluffing if the cards are all laid out. “Besides, if I’m gonna cheat, I’d make sure I won, not somebody else.”
“He’s your asshole buddy, he’d split it with you.”
Michael cut in, “Yeah, he is my friend, he helps me. You don’t help anyone.”
He shouldn’t have said that; now everyone would be eying us. Wineman and Coby were both looking sideways at me. I just shrugged, acting like it was another day dealing with Guarneri’s tongue, what’re you gonna do? I hoped I was nonchalant enough.
Wineman dealt next.
Then I realized we couldn’t do what Michael wanted. They’d surely catch us and we would have to pay some kind of price. I could help him win some of the hands, but I’d have to win some also and give him the money I won. I just hoped he wouldn’t misunderstand what I was doing while he was zoned on acid.
Guarneri didn’t take his eyes off me.
Two hands later I had a king up, a seven in the hole, and Michael had lousy cards with a king in the hole. So when the pipe came around, I did the same card switch after I lit Michael’s toke. When I sat back Guarneri snatched Michael’s hole card out of his hand. He saw it was a seven and wasn’t any good for Michael’s hand. He glared at me and threw the card back in Michael’s face. I held my hole card in my fist.
“Show me your hole card,” he said.
No way could I let him get away with behaving like that.
“Fuck you, sir. You gotta bet to see my cards,” I said. “And if you do that again, we’re walking out of here. Now let’s finish this hand.
He bet, the others dropped out, and my two kings eventually won the round. Eighty bucks that time. We now had $140 toward Michael’s ticket.
Three more hands went by, and we kept dropping out early, playing it cool, not matching bets, letting the other guys win the pot.
On the seventh hand we were playing blackjack, and I lucked out, kept getting double aces or quick blackjacks. On the third time I got an ace, Guarneri kicked my cards into me, jumped up, and pulled his rifle into shooting position, aiming it at my stomach.
Wineman yelled, “Whoa! Dude. Stop.”
Guarneri said, “Take your money, asshole. It’s the only fucken birthday present you’ll ever get from me. I’m never playing cards with you again. Now you two get out of my tower before I fucken kill you.” Michael and I backed out, holding our hands up.
But we had $275 by then, enough for the rest of his plane ticket. Outside Michael cried, blissful, saying, “Holy shit, we got away with it.”
I wondered if I did the right thing. Obviously I’d burnt a bridge, but I thought Michael staying married was the best thing to do.
Next day we were ordered to the truck early, only Michael couldn’t be found. I assumed he was buying his plane ticket. As the truck started leaving, Michael came running out of the gunroom, dragging his rifle, his pack, his helmet. He hopped in and jammed himself down next to me.
His arm around my neck, he whispered in my ear, “I’m flying out at nine-thirty tomorrow morning.” He squeezed me. “Couldn’t have done it without you.”
The truck flew past the turnoff to the towers. Everyone was asking what’s up when the truck stopped at the base rifle range. We climbed out to Sarge saying the Army in Europe was changing over to the lighter, deadlier M-16s used in Vietnam. Michael’s leg started jumping.
“Man,” I said, “be cool. At least we don’t have to go to the towers right away.”
“I already took the acid,” Michael said. “The noise will freak me out.”
Guarneri snapped at Michael in his New York accent, “You fucken acid-head, you’re gonna end up bat-shit crazy.”
Wineman looked at me and rolled his eyes. Wineman seemed not to care about the poker game. He was very mellow, always talking about sonofabitch tractors and growing pot behind his dad’s back.
We all traded our M-14s for new M-16s, then waited our turn to start shooting at the popup targets located 50 to 350 yards away up against the hillside. We had to do three positions: prone, kneeling, standing, ten shots in each position. I looked up at the hillside and realized I couldn’t see the targets past about seventy yards. When I told the range sergeant, he immediately pulled me off the range, took my M-16 away, and gave me my M-14 back.
Sarge Burdick yelled at the range sergeant, “What the hell you doing? It don’t matter how bad Paddy shoots, he just needs to qualify ’cause we’re changing over weapons today.”
The range sergeant said, “He can’t qualify without seeing the targets. No eyes on the targets, no M-16.”
I smelled freedom. Somehow I would turn an Army SNAFU to my benefit.
Then Michael started spraying the hillside with bullets, laughing maniacally, bits of targets, shrubs, and range signs flying through the air. My squad dropped to the ground as the range sergeant tackled him. He slugged Michael with his elbow and ripped the M-16 from his hands. Michael yelled that someone must’ve left the M-16 on full auto—it just jumped out of his grip. The range sergeant took the ammo clip out of the rifle and shoved Michael toward Sarge. “Get him the hell out of here.”
Sarge Burdick swore, grabbed me and Michael, and sent us with a driver back to the barracks. He told us to stay there, he’d deal with us later.
When we got to the barracks, Michael went to pack for his flight. I lay on my bunk, trying to figure out how to use the eyesight problem to my advantage. I figured Sarge would try to get me glasses as soon as possible. Then I remembered Coby’s buddy, Joey Romano, worked in reception at the medical clinic, and the clinic was only across the road and a block up. I ran.
At the clinic I found Joey and told him what happened at the rifle range, and that I absolutely needed a long delay before I saw an eye doctor. Joey said he could manipulate a six-month delay but it’d cost twenty bucks. I couldn’t give him the money fast enough and ran back to the barracks. I got to my bunk just as Sarge was coming for me. Sarge marched me back over to the clinic.
Joey made a big deal of opening the appointment book to Sarge, showing him the clinic had the same manpower shortage in eye docs that Sarge had in MPs. The tension coming off Sarge made me feel dizzy, as if the room was rotating. When I got the six-month reprieve, Sarge swore revenge. I thought, Only eight months to go, I can do this.
Back at the barracks, I was issued a .45-caliber sidearm and a jeep and sent to Kaiserslautern ammo dump, twenty minutes up the autobahn, to guard non-nuclear munitions. Michael leaned out his third-story window and yelled, “Lucky Paddy. Hurry back.”
On the drive I wondered what Sarge had planned for Michael. The last thing Michael could handle was more restriction.
I got back at 8 p.m., turned in the jeep and the .45, and headed to the barracks. In the dark I turned the corner of the building and ran into a crowd. There was a body on the sidewalk. I shoved through and looked into Michael’s dead eyes, nose broken, teeth smashed, and blood drifting across his forehead. I heard a noise and looked up. Sarge looked down at me from Michael’s third-story window and said, “I was gonna put him in the stockade for shooting up the rifle range. The dumb shit ran and jumped out the window, said he had to fly home.”
Everything stopped and my ears started buzzing. I understood Michael was home finally. But it would be awhile before he saw Florence again. My hands shook. I knelt down.
An envelope stuck out of Michael’s upper pocket. I recognized Florence’s handwriting from the I Love You inscribed on her picture. I pulled a letter out of the envelope. The words were hard to read in the dark. What I could make out said that Florence and her husband, Sean, had another baby, a boy this time, and they named him Michael.
That blew another hole in my stomach. It seemed so wrong, that he had lied to me the whole time. My mind slipped sideways.
After what seemed like forever had passed, I realized if that was how he lived—in a fantasy—and that was how he died, then I didn’t really know him. I wondered who I did know.
There was no crowd sound, no trucks or music or airplanes. No singing no marching no squad forming up no Sarge complaining. The base seemed totally still, as though the whole Army was listening, waiting for instruction.
The snowflakes fell on Michael’s body.
Russ Doherty attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, 2016; SCBWI Conference, 2017; Santa Barbara Writers Conference, 2018; and Kauai Writers Conference, 2019. He has studied with Greg Iles, Whitney Scharer, Priya Parmar, and Joshua Mohr. He has a double BA from the University of California Santa Barbara in Screenwriting and Music Composition. His work is forthcoming in Lunaris Review and Summerset Review. His first short story, Drought, was nominated for a PEN Award: Best Debut Short Story.