I arrived at the Miesau depot in the winter of 1965, coming with a half-dozen others from another depot in the foothills of the Southern Alps in a deuce-and-a-half driven by a dissipated perennial corporal, who had a striking, sleepy-eyed resemblance to Robert Mitchum. We were all Military Policemen, assigned to what the Army called a Physical Security Company.
That meant no white hat, no MP Brassard to be worn on duty and no 1911A1 .45, for which we had all been trained in Georgia. We were to wear fatigues and helmet liners and carry M-14s, to resemble regular dogface GIs as closely as possible. The difference was that we would be carrying full magazines of 7.62 NATO rounds in our belt pouches, unlike the infantry units all over West Germany. They only touched live ammo at a firing range. Rather melodramatically, we were informed that we were authorized to shoot to kill in the event of a breach of the physical security of the facilities we would guard.
The choice of uniform was meant to fool Soviet Bloc observers who pretty much had the run of Western Germany, because Russia had been our ally in the Second World War. The facilities that required armed MPs camouflaged as GIs contained nuclear weaponry, the whereabouts of which we did not want our erstwhile allies to know. Our guard tricks would be eight hours straight: three days on days, three days on swings, three days on midnights, and then a three-day break. We all had to have Secret clearances, just to guard the stuff.
Part of our briefing-in at the new post was a short chat with the post chaplain, who didn’t pull any punches. He said that if anybody thought this duty was easy, their thinking would change very quickly. He called it a high tribute to the personal character and internal resources of men who stood this duty month and month out, that they remained relatively sane.
“If anybody thinks that doing nothing, nothing at all, alone for eight hours straight, week after week, month after month, is easy, let them try it sometime,” he said. “I’ve seen boys become men out in the Area — and men become gibbering idiots.”
When the locals said Area as if it was capitalized, they were always talking about the Exclusion Area, inside a double hurricane fence topped with rows of barbed wire that surrounded old Nazi V-2 bunkers converted to Allied use for missile work. The M Area was a buffer zone, also fenced and locked, between the X Area and the depot at large, which also of course was fenced and had regular white-hat MPs on the gates.
Those of us who had just arrived were surplus to the requirements of the depot we left, but had been held there like prisoners by a madcap Sergeant First Class who had a lot of “details” — scut work like painting ceilings and cutting underbrush — he wanted to get done before we escaped. The Army finally caught up with him and rescued us. Now it was time to do the work for which we had been covertly briefed even before we left the States.
We were scattered out among squads missing a man due to rotation home. Our new bunk mates told us a lot more about the duty, including plenty of horror stories about men who lost it so badly that they wound up in a rubber room at Landstuhl Military Hospital. You might say we were well and truly primed before we ever saw the inside of the Area.
The weather had turned off cold. Pile caps, like Sergeant Preston of the Northwest Mounted wore on television, supplanted the helmet liners. My first shift would be the graveyard shift, because that’s where my squad was in the rotation. I had to borrow an insulated Army parka from Putnam, one of the guys who had come in with me who was on a different rotation, because of course the supply sergeant was behind the curve on the new recruits. We were issued wool shirts and pants that looked old enough to be war surplus. But they were warm and fit snugly enough to go under our fatigues and over our waffle-weave long johns. I added my field jacket (no liner issued) under the parka, and rubber over-boots over my combat boots because “Mickey Mouse” insulated boots were also in short supply.
By the time the three-quarter-ton taking my squad out to the Area had penetrated the dense cold fog that had risen in the night, and gone through the X Gate-password rigmarole, I was cold as I had ever been on a duck hunt, and wishing for my personal duck-hunting clothes.
The truck circled the Area on an inner road, posting a new guard at each shack, picking up the previous one. I wound up being one of the last two off the truck, partnered with an unspeaking veteran guard. We weren’t at a bunker when we climbed down into the fog — we were on a railhead — and there were no guards to replace. A couple of boxcars on the siding made big rectangular black lumps in the glare-back of the truck’s headlights. I was relieved to see high-up bluish circles of light dotted above the rails — security lights that weren’t doing much against the fog, but at least we could see a little bit.
One guard shack sat where the rails ended against a big battered bumper. The other was totally invisible, about a hundred yards down the rails. The sergeant showed us a smaller black bulk beside the boxcars that we couldn’t see until we were almost touching it. It was a tarp-covered semi-trailer, detached from its missing tow truck.
“This trailer is the main reason you’re here,” the sergeant said. “This shipment came in late from the air base. Damned Ordnance pukes wouldn’t stay late to unload it into the bunkers. The hole in the fence to let trains through is a weak spot in our perimeter.”
“What about the box cars, Sarge?” the other guard asked, the first time I heard him speak.
“Empty and locked. You won’t have to crawl up in them to look, and they locked them to keep you from sneaking in there to catch a few winks.”
There was nothing to say to that, so he led us both to the invisible guard shack with a flashlight whose beam bounced off the fog unless he aimed it right at the ground. My fingers, inside wool glove liners, leather gloves and insulated over-mittens with trigger fingers, were already cold.
“Where are the other guards?” I asked.
“We didn’t have anybody out here when the shipment came in. The backups had to take it, but they walked back to the warming shack when they heard the truck coming. I’ll get them on the way out.” He nodded to my companion. “You take this post. It’s closest to the fence and you’re senior.” Then he walked me back to the other shack. “Just crank the pack phone twice to get somebody if you need to. Don’t use it to call your buddy. Walk down if you need to tell him something.”
He climbed in the passenger side of the truck and it went away. The night got a whole lot darker and colder. In less than a minute the pack phone in the shack made a jangling sound kind of like a phone ringing. I answered it.
“It’s me,” the other guard said. “I’m going to get some shut-eye. Don’t use the pack phone unless you hear somebody coming. Then wake me up. You got smokes?”
“I left them at the barracks. They said you can’t smoke in here.”
He grunted. “Yeah, yeah. If you start having a nicotine fit, walk down. I got a pack. Call first or I might shoot your ass.”
“The sergeant said not to call…”
“Fuck what the sergeant said. Call me.”
“Try not to need a cigarette for a couple hours, okay? I’m bushed.”
I heard a soft thunk as he closed his shack door. Then the silence settled in, and it seemed to get even colder. A weird glow that didn’t align with the blurred railhead lights began to suffuse the dense fog. Before too long I could make out the fuzzy outline of a waning, bitter-silver moon, riding high.
The moon burned a freezing, blurred path to the crowns of the tall, close-ranked German pines that hemmed the railhead. My whole world had become a surreal, ink-and-silver dream world. I couldn’t see the hands of my watch — just as well. My duck hunter instincts, from pre-dawn waits for shooting time, told me that if you could see the watch hands, they never seemed to move. My feet were getting cold. I took a turn across the tracks to get some circulation going, moving very carefully by feel, and circled the box cars, then back and around the trailer.
The moonlight revealed that the fog was layered in moving, shifting banks, now thicker, now thinner. I paced up and down the pavement. The shifting layers of mist kept snatching at my peripheral vision, building fantastic shapes that moved and hovered. It was easy to believe in Nazi ghosts who balefully watched the miserable, thin-blooded interloper on their old precincts…
When the pack phone jangled again in the shack, I started so hard my rifle sling slid off my parka shoulder and I had to grab to keep it from hitting the ground.
“I can’t sleep with you marching around down there. You sound like a horse on cobblestones.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I was cold.”
“You oughta try the Idaho Panhandle this time of year.”
I shivered at the thought. “I’m a Floridian.”
“Jesus Christ! Listen, I’m gonna walk down. You wanna smoke?”
He was right about the footsteps. I could hear his boots ringing hollowly a long time before his bundled up shape swam into the moon-glow, thick and bulky as a deep-sea diver.
When he got up to me he had his cigarette package in his hands. Camels — I prefer Pall Malls, but at least it wasn’t a damn filter brand. And it was nice of him to offer. His Zippo flared up like a bonfire and I had to blink fireballs out of my eyes for minutes it seemed like. We smoked in companionable silence.
He field stripped his butt, lit another, and tucked the package and Zippo under the trailer tarp. “Don’t know who will be doing guard-check tonight,” he said. “Not our squad sergeant. Never is. There’s one asshole who searches your pockets to see if you got smokes on you.” He took a deep inhale. “Don’t smoke ’em all. Long night ahead.”
I told him I wouldn’t, and he trudged back, cigarette smoke trailing over his shoulder and joining the mist. He vanished in five steps — I counted. “Maybe I can sleep now,” his voice floated back. “Walk quiet if you can. Okay?”
His footsteps seemed to go on for a long time before they stopped and I heard his door close again. I decided that I would wait what seemed like an hour before I smoked another one. I went inside the shack and closed the door. Maybe the closed shack would reflect some body heat eventually.
Time crawled. My hands, buried in my pockets, finally were almost comfortable under all those layers. I thought I might boost a pair of those over-mittens to take home with me for duck hunting. Thinking about that made me remember that the season would be on back home. I wondered if my younger brother would go. I hoped so, because then he could write and tell me about it.
It seemed as if ten minutes or so detached themselves from the future, ambled along into the present, and sauntered by me into history. It only took about the subjective time of a normal weekend…
I drifted into a duck-hunting reverie, replaying hunts I had. I wondered if I could remember every duck I had ever shot before the night was over. I started with the big canvasback drake, five minutes after opening hour the year I turned sixteen. He wasn’t my first duck, but a memorable one, almost a trophy. Then I decided to try to work my way all the way back to the first duck I ever missed…
The sound, when it came, was as loud as if it was right outside.
I jerked my head back and banged it against the window glass as my brain processed what I had heard: the action of a semi-automatic rifle being racked, hard and fast.
What on earth…?
I strained my ears. Was I already imagining things? It took some men that way, the squad members told me: making up sounds to alleviate the silence. My pulse rate must have been through the roof.
I heard it again. Jesus Christ, was the other guard trying to chamber a round? Why? What had he seen? Should I try to call him on the pack phone? Should I just load up and go down there? All our briefings, and none had covered this. What if I called and the phone distracted him from whatever he was seeing? But if he was locked and loaded, it would be dangerous to just go down there without calling — he had already warned me.
It seemed to take me too long to make up my mind. The third time I heard the rifle bolt being racked, I grabbed the phone and cranked.
“Who is this?” He sounded angry as hell.
“Me,” I said. “Why are you racking your rifle? See something?”
“Shit! You’re in your shack?” Now he sounded scared. “Then who’s got my rifle?”
“Shh-h-h! I hear footsteps. Oh, God. He’s got my rifle!”
I didn’t stop to think. I banged open the door and ripped a magazine out of my belt pouch, loading as I stared into the fog. I racked a round, made sure of the safety, and started forward on my tiptoes — hard to do in those damn rubber over-boots.
It took forever for his shack to materialize out of the dark.
He was leaning against the shack, head down, not looking. But I could see that he had his rifle in his hands.
“Easy,” I said. “Easy, I’m coming in.”
His head snapped up, but he didn’t level his rifle. He didn’t move beyond that jerk of his head. I was trying to look everywhere at once as I got closer. His face was a pale blur in the diffuse moonlight, eyes wide, mouth open like a black hole in his face.
“I thought it was you,” he said. He seemed short of breath, as if he had been running.
“I thought it was you, sneaking down here and racking my rifle. I always leave it outside so I can curl up when I got to sleep. Then you rang the damn phone!”
“Somebody else is out here?”
Without thinking about it, my back was planted against his shack, right beside him, so I could see outward. Now my pulse really was racing.
He was cursing steadily under his breath. “I thought it was you!”
“Why on earth would I…”
“Some people like to play tricks like that out here,” he interrupted. “I thought I was safe with a new guy, but…”
“Is your rifle loaded?” I said.
“It is now. I heard it hit the pavement when you called. Then more footsteps. I crawled out and found it. By then, I couldn’t hear him anymore.”
I couldn’t get my mind around it. “You think that sergeant you don’t like — ?”
“Nah, hell nah — if it had been him he would be reaming me a new one by now for sleeping on guard. You didn’t hear any vehicles did you?”
“No. But I was inside…”
“You’d of heard. And not even that bastard could drive up on us without lights! Not in this fog.”
“What the hell do we do now?”
He straightened. “We call it in. There’s been an incursion.”
“Do we keep loaded?”
“Hell, yeah.” He paused with his hand on the door. “Do me a favor? We both heard footsteps and when I challenged, they beat it. Okay?”
“You got it.”
So on my first night in the Area, I got to see an emergency deployment: backup force, sergeants, even the Officer of the Day. Headlights, flashlights — big ones, with lots of candlepower — Ordnance pukes in their own vehicles to check the integrity of the trailer. (We’d removed the smokes in the meantime.)
While all of this was going on, one of the reinforcements spotted a different flashlight up the hill in the pines, on and off, like it was moving behind tree trunks. Then we all saw it. A squad led by a sergeant who happened to be a Sioux Indian spread out and followed him into the pitch blackness beneath the trees, those big lights blasting the dark to shreds.
The Sioux radioed back to the OOD that he’d found fresh footprints and they were following. The hunters’ lights surged up the hill and eventually out of sight.
And the single small flashlight came to life behind them and moved off at an angle.
The OOD got on his walkie-talkie and called them back. His voice was loud enough in the night, I was sure, to inform the skulker he had been spotted again. As soon as the first of the big lights came back over the hill, the single flashlight vanished again.
It went on like that for a good long time. Little by little, the single small flashlight distanced itself from pursuit, doubling back more than once.
“The son-of-a-bitch is playing with us,” the OOD snarled.
They never caught him. They never found out who he was, or what he had been trying to pull. It was like we’d been invaded by a poltergeist. A poltergeist that used a flashlight, and left footprints. Otherwise, I’m not sure anybody would have ever believed us.
And that was just my first night in the capital-E Exclusion Area.