Recently I tried an experiment here, posting ancient typewritten pages from an Army tour in the 1960s. “Ancient”: a lot has happened in the half-century since. The world has changed almost beyond recognition — and stayed essentially the same beneath the cosmetics. It occurred to me to place here a story I gleaned from those old notes for publication this century. I called it “Pulling Alert.”
THE ARMY, like all institutions, has a vocabulary all its own. In the long dreary Cold War decades after Hitler’s Reich collapsed, the East and West were eyeball to eyeball, like deranged gamblers, across the poker table of a partitioned Germany. The Army had a term called “pulling alert.”
In the hierarchy of paranoid fears that the other side might flip a card face up at any moment, there were several stages of alert, ranging downward from all-out. That was where every soldier was deployed to defensive positions in the field, even the clerks. Telephone calling trees were used to assemble dependents for evacuation. Those drills were mercifully rare. The mildest form of alert required that a certain number of troops, normally off-duty for the night, stand by in battle dress, ready to mobilize and double the standing watch in under half an hour. This duty was democratically rotated through all unmarried soldiers. When your name came up, it was a lost night of drinking and playing pinball machines in the enlisted men’s club. No small sacrifice those dreary German winters, when drinking and pinball were the only recreation.
So why would I volunteer for another dry night, on behalf of a man who could not return the favor? Why would any of us in headquarters platoon do that for this man? We were all cynical draftees who never volunteered for anything.
The man for whom I stood watch was Regular Army, not a draftee. He was a gentle giant of a man, whose whole ambition in life was an Army career, a “lifer” in the sarcastic jargon of us draftees. He was an excellent military cop. Those of us in the Military Police Company who had been civilian cops said that any police force in the world would be lucky to have him. He was a steady, solid worker, fearless; but he exercised his authority over others with humility and common sense.
He re-enlisted for enough bonus pay to make a down payment on a new Volkswagen. Not your most ambitious man.
But he was in love. Deeply, irrevocably in love with a German girl whose misfortune it was to have been born in East Germany, the Communist-owned half of the divided nation. She was the mother of his one-year-old son. He stayed off-post with her every night. But the Army paperwork that would permit a marriage was bogged down somewhere, and might stay bogged down forever. Because he might be sleeping with the enemy.
This particular night he was, anyway.
Because, though it was his turn on alert, I sat in the beer-free snack bar in my soldier costume and drank coffee. I wanted a beer, badly.
But I felt virtuous. And so did everybody else who aided this love, even the lifers in command. Procedure required them to authorize substitutions on the alert roster. I typed the damn thing. Never once did they question it when I penciled in another name against his. We all knew what they were doing to him was typical Army chicken shit. So we joined the open conspiracy, cynical draftees and lifers together, to ensure that one man who had found his woman could spend every possible moment with her.
The unit commander, a former football star somewhere, had called in a favor at headquarters to prevent this particular soldier from being rotated stateside when he re-enlisted. But the C.O. could not “designate” him as married, as he was permitted to do for others with long-standing relationships with German women, because of the question mark over his lady’s East German origins.
In the weird looking-glass war of intelligence and counter-intelligence, the powers that be weren’t about to let a Soviet sleeper agent use wedding vows to corrupt a Midwestern Specialist Fourth Class with a NATO Final Secret Clearance. How the moles in Langley must have laughed up their sleeves.
We all knew it was bullshit. But if he was designated as married, the unmarried enlisted men living in the barracks would have to pull more alerts and miss more beer-drinking time. One of them, already jealous because he had a steady shack job, might write a letter to his Mommy, and she might tell a Congressman. The glare of indignity over a curly-haired draftee missing his beer because a shambling, inarticulate lifer was in thrall to Soviet pussy could have been terminal to the C.O.’s own ambitions.
The gentle giant might still be transferred out one day, before the marriage papers cleared. The papers might never clear the Red-fearing red-tape pushers. He might never be able to make it back to Germany for her. It might all end in that relatively minor tragedy, to anyone except the participants, of true love, lost for good.
I sat in the snack bar, sober as the mythic judge.
Tonight he was sleeping her warm. It was all I could do.