Saturday, November 3, 2007

Squareface Part 2: The Bells of Hell

The platoon, which had been formed into two neat lines, exploded as the men raced toward the barracks, Tony among them. The barracks was a long wooden building lined with metal bunk beds. Each soldier had a foot locker to hold his gear.

Joining the Army as he had, Tony had been assigned to a division that had no regional identity; although most of the divisions of the U.S. Army at that time did. Tony’s unit included soldiers from all over the United States. The diversity of language and custom reminded Tony of the coal mine and made him feel right at home.

He hurried to his footlocker and began stuffing things into his duffel bag. He had missed part of what the sergeant had said, so he didn’t know exactly what was going on, but he knew what an alert meant.

“Moiphy, did you catch what’s going on?” Tony called to the soldier in the next bunk who was also stuffing things into a green canvass bag.

Murphy, who everyone called “Moiphy” because of his thick Boston accent, was a tall soldier with closely cropped hair that was so red it made his skin seem transparent. He looked at Tony with a smile and a twinkle in his green eyes.

“Sgt. didn’t say what, but something is happening,” Murphy was only a few years older than Tony and he grinned with anticipation, “Maybe this is it. Maybe we’ll finally get to see the elephant.”

Tony didn’t have anything to say to that. He packed his duffel bag and made sure that all of his gear was in good order. “Seeing the elephant” was how the older soldiers referred to combat. To a veteran who had really seen combat, the phrase meant one thing. To Tony and the other soldiers of his platoon “seeing the elephant” was exciting and something to be desired. Tony felt a thrill of excitement as he went about the rote tasks of preparing his gear.

By 3:25 all of the soldiers of Tony’s platoon were packed and ready for deployment. They were five minutes early. The young men stood nervously and talked while they waited for Sgt. Williams to return.

“I heard this morning there was some trouble in Vera Cruz, wherever that is,” said a soldier with the flat tones of the Midwest in his voice.

“It’s on the coast, east of Mexico City,” said Corporal Muldoon in his semi-educated New York accent.

The voices of the platoon blurred into a meaningless jumble as the men traded and argued over rumors, scraps of information and dogmatic opinions. Tony couldn’t figure out what trouble in Vera Cruz on the coast east of Mexico City could have to do with him on the Rio Grande.


Sgt. Williams’ raspy voice cut through the chatter and brought his platoon to attention, each in front of his own bunk with his packed duffle bag at his feet.

The bantam sergeant marched down the length of the room inspecting each soldier as he went. Tony held himself at stiff attention, keenly aware of the single drop of sweat that made its itchy way down his spine.

“At ease!”

Sgt. Williams sauntered back down between the rows of men.

“You men are making me wonder. Are you really that well trained?”

No one said anything. Sgt. Williams’ boots creaked on the floor boards.

“I can’t hear you!”

“Yes, sergeant!”

Tony’s voice startled him as he joined in the loud response. He hadn’t thought about speaking, it had happened automatically.

Sgt. Williams’ leathery face broke into a wide smile.

“Well, you’ all know the motto of the U.S. Army by now: Hurry up and wait. Now we wait. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”

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